“How long is it going to take?”
Those are familiar words to all who work in the electric industry. It’s the first question people have when the lights go out. And it doesn’t take long to realize how dependent we are on electricity. But what does it take to get those lights back on? Why does it sometimes take hours?
Most people will never witness the behind-the-scenes work that goes into ending outages, so we’re going to explain the process.
BUT FIRST, THE BASICS:
Your electricity travels a great distance to your home. It all starts with generation. The fuel can be natural gas, diesel, coal, hydro, wind, solar, or nuclear. A power plant typically produces voltages of less than 30,000 volts. That voltage needs to be “stepped up” so it can travel long distances. That process starts next door in the power plant’s substation and switchyard. In the substation, a transformer steps up the voltage to 345,000 volts and sends it out on transmission lines to another substation.
When the electricity hits the next substation, a transformer reduces the voltage to 34,500 volts and sends it out to smaller local substations. These local substations are the final stop before the electricity reaches your home. There, a transformer reduces the voltage to 12,740 volts.
Just before entering your home, yet another transformer steps down the voltage to 120/240 volts so you can operate all the devices that power your life.
This scenario repeats itself constantly throughout Loup Power District’s territory covering more than 2,200 square miles. There are thousands of poles and nearly 900 miles of distribution, transmission, and underground lines. While we work hard to maintain all that infrastructure, Mother Nature can cause a lot of problems if she wants to.
Just like your home, our system has breakers. They help us reduce the exposure of the line and allow us to split our system into sections to reduce the amount of people affected by outages. Breakers also protect equipment on the line.
Ever wonder why your lights blink a few times before going off? That’s the breaker. It operates a few times trying to give the fault a chance to clear the line before opening.
THE OUTAGE BEGINS:
It doesn’t take long for Loup employees to learn about an outage. New technology alerts us right away. And we are also ready to respond when bad weather threatens our territory.
Humphrey Local Superintendent Joe Hubenka said he usually starts getting calls shortly after an outage. Customers ask what happened and how long the outage will last. And while he wants to answer those questions for them, there’s no way to do so with any certainty.
“You never know until you get there,” he said. “There’s no lineman who has ever diagnosed something from his home.”
HEAD TO THE OFFICE
An after-hours outage requires line technicians to respond from home. After learning of an outage, Hubenka usually heads to the Humphrey office and calls Journey Line Technician Jared Hoefelman to join him.
By the time he gets to the office, he most likely has gotten an update from one of the Plant Operators at the Columbus Powerhouse. He gathers his equipment and jumps in the truck to head to the general area of the outage. If it’s on the other side of his division, the drive alone can take more than 30 minutes.
He has an idea of where the problem is, but he has to patrol lines to pinpoint the exact cause of an outage — for example, a broken pole or a fallen tree branch. Checking the line takes time. It’s one of the more time-consuming steps, but also one of the most important parts of restoring an outage. Line techs can’t just flip a switch and restore the power. That can be dangerous for many reasons. Re-energizing the line in certain scenarios could be dangerous to the public and cause more damage that extends the outage.
“Public safety is of utmost importance,” Hubenka said.
FIND THE PROBLEM
Once Hubenka finds the cause of an outage, he has to get a game plan for repair and power restoration. Does he need any additional equipment? Will the repair require an aerial lift or a digger truck? Is the repair something that can be done safely? Or are the weather conditions too dangerous?
Hubenka said his goal is to restore power as quickly as possible. But in addition to public safety, he must consider his own safety and that of other employees. These safety procedures add time, but they are vital. It’s how line techs survive a dangerous job so they can go home to their families.
“We have to follow our safe practice procedures,” Hubenka said.
Let’s say a 50-foot oak tree fell through a line. Even though it is causing an outage, it only broke a crossarm so the pole is still good. The wire isn’t broken but is under the tree. Line techs have to chop the tree and free the wire. Anyone who has cut up a downed tree will understand the danger. You have to be careful and pay attention to the tree and how it’s sitting on the ground. Downed trees can shift and roll while being cut.
In addition, the power line is under tension, pinned down by the tree. Sometimes power lines must be tied down so that they can be let up in a more controlled manner once the tree is cut.
In other scenarios, employees might decide to temporarily brace a broken pole until they can get a new pole and digger truck to the site in daylight. They might need to call in additional help from other areas of the District for widespread damage.
Once all repairs are made, the line is re-energized and power is restored. This process and time frame is always different. The one thing that is consistent is that employees work hard to ensure reliability. Loup line crews always do their best to get the lights back on as quickly and safely as possible during outages that are often caused by factors beyond control.
It is the same all across Nebraska — the only state in the nation served completely by public power utilities. In fact, Nebraska was recently ranked number one in the nation for reliability.
And that’s something that Hubenka is proud of. He has spent 45 years working in the power industry and knows that public power works. It offers customers low rates and high reliability.
“Why fix something that works?” he said.