The key element of the emergency plan is to place people in predefined positions to look after specific aspects of the response, and the lessons learnt from Storm Darwin and implemented in time for Ophelia proved effective, writes Derek Hynes

Before the storm

ESB Network’s preparation for Storm Ophelia started on the Thursday morning beforehand [Ophelia hit on Monday morning], according to Derek Hynes, ESB Networks operations manager: “We get a five-day look-ahead weather forecast every morning. We had heard rumours of severe weather before that, but five days is at the outer envelope of what Met Éireann can provide with a high degree of accuracy.”

ESB Network’s operations manager makes the call in terms of escalation. “There are two significant weather impacts for us – lightning, which is completely unpredictable five days out, and wind. We have certain thresholds for wind and the level of damage that can be caused at those thresholds,” says Hynes.

“We started our emergency preparation at two o’clock on Thursday afternoon. We have a very good relationship with Met Éireann and talked to Gerald Fleming that afternoon. His view at that stage was that there was a 70 per cent likelihood of there being a major event of a similar or more severe level than Storm Darwin from February 2014.

“We formally convened our first crisis management team meeting on Friday. It also met on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, we engaged all of our divisional emergency plans. What was new with this storm was that we took a national position first, rather than let issues emerge locally.”

Met Éireann issued a status red severe weather warning for eight counties on Saturday, by which point ESB Networks was almost three days into its preparations. “It was at that point that the national emergency response plan was triggered. We were then asked to attend the national emergency co-ordination meeting at the Department of Agriculture at 10.30 on Sunday morning.”

According to the ESB Network’s operations manager, the key element of its emergency plan is placing people in predefined positions to look after specific aspects of the emergency response.

These aspects are:
1.) Safety – public, staff and assets;
2.) Information – to stakeholders and the public; and
3.) Restoration – resourcing and managing restoration to get people connected as quickly as possible

“Our preparation involved planning for the implementation of plans on the above aspects. We knew on Saturday that we were likely to have an event that was similar, if not greater, than Storm Darwin in February 2014, which was the last big storm that we had, and also probably the first of the modern data era, where we could track in such detail the impact on the network.

The storm hits

“The first impact of the storm was 7.45am when we had a 38,000 volt line trip in Ballincollig, Co Cork. Every town and village in Ireland has a high-voltage substation – there are 750 in the country – and all of the devices in those substations are monitored in real-time by a system called SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) and it gives us a picture of the performance of our network at any given time.

“It feeds data into our Operations Management System, which tells us about all of our interconnecting lines and cables, and which of our customers are connected to each of those lines, down to the individual level – all 2.4 million premises in Ireland are referenced on this network.

“If something happens on the network, it is tracked by this system and the information relayed on for our customers to view,” says Hynes. Some issues can be fixed from ESB Network’s control centre in south Co Dublin.

“A circuit may trip if a tree has fallen on the line, but we can try to restore power using our SCADA system of remote control, perhaps if the tree is no longer on the line an hour later. From our office here we can try to close the affected circuit breaker to try to restore electricity. Through doing this we can expect a rapid improvement in the number of customers without electricity in the first hours after a storm.

“Our main concern during the storm itself is public safety. We are watching for conditions involving live electricity wires on the ground, which we can detect using SCADA and disconnecting them remotely where necessary.

“During the storm, we had 64 of those in the southern half of the country, so we had to disconnect the network to remove any potential public safety hazards that might arise.

The response

“Around 4pm on the Monday we decided to deploy staff in Cork as the wind was moving away. Each local restoration centre was given a time where we believed they could start work, and they then check conditions are suitable (according to preset criteria) before making a decision on what activities can be safely carried out,” says Hynes.

During ESB Network’s 2pm conference call on Monday, permission was given for each of those local restoration centres to start work once it was safe to do so. “We may not have the ability on day one to fix certain issues, but instead we would gather information and ensure people’s safety.

“We have about 900 staff across the country involved in the type of work needed after a storm – the repair of overhead lines, the replacement of poles and so on. On Monday night, we started making decisions about deployment of staff to places where we were ready to receive them.

“At the same time we gave a commitment to the National Emergency Group that we would prioritise the restoration of electricity based on certain criteria – vulnerable customers, telecommunications, water, waste and hospitals. These criteria are well established within ESB Networks and our systems are designed to allow us to identify these parts of the electricity network so we can prioritise our resources to get power back to these locations as quickly and safely as possible.

“During the restoration phase, we were communicating directly with bodies such as Irish Water and the HSE and allowing them to feed in their priorities. The more accurate information that we can provide, the easier it is for them to manage their resources such as generators and water tankers. Restoration of power to wastewater treatment plants was a major concern for us.”

The ESB is part of a mutual association called NEWSAC (North, East, West, South Area Consortium) which is composed of all of the electricity companies in Ireland and the UK. These companies provide mutual aid to support each other in the aftermath of storms.

Hynes explains the process: “We formally called for support on Saturday morning. They sanctioned the release of crews on Tuesday morning once they had assessed the damage to their own grids. At this point we had about 900 internal field staff and 200 private contractors on the ground here. At the same time, we got a commitment from the member companies to release 330 staff to assist us. The French company ERDF also released 29 staff.

“Everybody who arrives here receives a safety induction upon arriving and are then deployed to a location and paired with staff. By the time they arrive here we are most likely dealing with lower voltage faults that we have not been able to prioritise in the first day or two.

“The key thing is that by the time they arrive, we know where all of our faults are – and that means we can deploy them effectively. Of course, in repairing the 5,000 faults that we knew about during this storm, we will find subsequent downstream faults, perhaps around another 10 per cent of the initial total, which while these can be predicted reasonably accurately using our systems, the exact location is only determined when crews are on the ground.”

Lessons learned

“The lessons that we learned from Storm Darwin, and implemented in time for Ophelia were really effective. Darwin saw the disconnection of electricity to 280,000 homes and businesses and restoration in eight days. So we had that as a benchmark. Ophelia involved 385,000 homes and businesses and restoration in six days.”

He clearly identified the key lessons learned:
• Escalating at a national level early and establishing the local structures which supported the restoration effort;
• Upgrading the operations management system between the two storms to provide better and more granular information. This time ESB Networks had better information with which to plan the restoration;
• The establishment of an information plan and greater use of social media; and the powercheck app was vital in communicating with the public.

“The customer perception is extremely positive. For the vast majority of the 900,000 or so people who lost electricity, they got it back in a reasonable timeframe, and they got a lot of information while they were waiting. The people who are most unhappy are the people who were told it would be back at the end of day one, and didn’t get it back until day two. The levels of preparedness are important.

“We have an approximate 85 per cent accuracy with our estimated times of restoration. Often, what’s worse than not having electricity is not having it back when you have been told you will have it back. If you know when it is coming back you can plan to make other arrangements.”

There are still improvements to be made through better communication with the public. “National household resilience is definitely something that can be improved for future weather events. A lot of discussion of the National Emergency Co-ordination Group was about how we make the country more resilient through a national resilience programme.

“If you look at other countries, they have a highly evolved sense of household resilience that is not present here. The needs of electricity customers are changing and the dependence of our lifestyles on having a virtually infinitely reliable source of electricity is growing.  Electrification of heat and transport will increase the need for reliable electricity. It’s vital that we continue to invest in the electricity network and in our ability to deal with more extreme weather conditions so that ESB Networks can meet these needs..

“We need to make sure that our systems take into account the impact on people’s internet access, ability to communicate and subsequently their lifestyles. The level of lifestyle curtailment without electricity is a lesson learned from Ophelia.”

Author: Derek Hynes, operations manager, ESB Networks O'RiordanElecelectricity,energy,ESB,Irish Water
Before the storm ESB Network’s preparation for Storm Ophelia started on the Thursday morning beforehand , according to Derek Hynes, ESB Networks operations manager: “We get a five-day look-ahead weather forecast every morning. We had heard rumours of severe weather before that, but five days is at the outer envelope...