On a Good Day no one thinks much about the electric company. But when the power goes out in southern New Hampshire, PSNH is on everyone’s minds.
As the state’s largest electric utility, Public Service of New Hampshire serves half a million homes and businesses and employs nearly 1,500 workers. Though it mostly buys and distributes electricity from outside sources, it also operates nine hydropower plants and three fossil fuel plants of its own in New Hampshire, the largest of which is the 445-megawatt coal-burning Merrimack Station in Bow.
But all those megawatts at those huge plants come down to one thing: keeping your power on, at your home or office, one little light bulb or iPod at a time.
Front of the line
In a Day-Glo yellow reflective vest and dark yellow hardhat, Scott Johnson stood in the shadow of the towering arms of two bucket utility trucks parked against a curb on Candia Road in Manchester on a 40-degree February morning.
“Sometimes when we’re out there it’s six below zero,” Johnson said as the sunlight poured down on him and his crew. “If it were like this every year we would be lucky.” He noted that he and his crew barely flinch at cold days when they’re working.
Johnson, a line foreman with Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), has been helping keep your lights on for 22 years. He will often drive through his own neighborhood in the event of a storm and to check on all the circuits. He calls the PSNH war room when there is an outage.
“I think trouble is fun, and I try to figure out problems before they even start,” Johnson said. “It’s still pretty fun. Every day is different and every trouble can be different.”
Keeping the power on
“Outages are more significant now because we are more dependent on technology,” said Mike Skelton, PSNH corporate communications specialist. “We understand that customers feel more put out today than ever because of how important energy is in everyday life.”
The company runs a tree-trimming program on a five-year cycle to clear branches from all circuits, but there is no guarantee that trees won’t damage lines during a storm.
“If a tree is 25 feet away … we can’t just cut a private tree,” said Tim Kenney, supervisor of the PSNH Hooksett Area Work Center. Around 80 percent of the trees that caused outages to more than 237,000 customers during the October 2011 snowstorm were outside the trim zone, he said. PSNH spends $14 million a year on its tree-trimming program, with $1 million of that spent on permits, public hearings, boards and committees.
The company uses thermal imaging to detect circuit issues long before a voltage overload could cause an outage. The Flir thermal imaging cameras detect hot spots on the equipment, which in turn helps PSNH crews detect issues that can go unnoticed by the naked eye: “They help us really stay on top of things, for a limited amount of time anyway,” said Robert Krewson, a PSNH circuit owner — an engineer tasked with the upkeep and maintenance of circuits in a particular coverage area. “A lot of times you can catch something a year or two before it could be a problem.”
Since his second day on the job five years ago, Krewson has patrolled the PSNH coverage area served by the Hooksett Area Work Center (the east side of Manchester, Litchfield up to Pembroke and parts of Candia and Londonderry) with a thermal imaging camera twice a year, once in the summer and again in the winter.
“It’s better in the winter because when it’s cold outside the heat shows up better,” Krewson said. The highest voltage loads are often in the summer when PSNH customers are running their air conditioners regularly. Krewson took out an infrared photo of a circuit showing dangerous hot spots of 135.5 degrees Celsius (275.9 Fahrenheit). On average, the delta, or difference, between the pieces equipment on the pole should not exceed 20 degrees.
“If there are different pieces of equipment on a pole operating at higher temperatures than the other equipment there is something wrong with it,” said Vic Carter, a system electrician at the PSNH Hooksett Area Work Center. The thermal imaging system would not be able to detect issues of underground electrical equipment, Carter said. “We would have to dig it up and find the line [if there was a possible issue],” Carter said. “Different groups would have to be involved if the lines were underground ... like Dig Safe.”
Early detection not only prevents outages, Carter said; it also prevents fires on the poles, which cost $40,000 in equipment repair and replacement. “Every year we find 130 problems, which we fix,” he said. “Take that and multiply it by $40,000. We just saved a lot of money.”
In the early part of the 20th century, the dates of installation were nailed on to the poles. As a result of the marking system, we know that some poles in the Queen City area have been standing for more than 80 years. As part of the Reject Pole Program at PSNH, poles holding a handful of circuits are replaced every five or six years. Up to 80 poles can be replaced by the company annually.
Kenney gestured to the poles piled up in the fenced-in yard of the Hooksett Area Work Center. “We’re hoping some of these last that long, too,” he said.
Can’t they just bury the lines?
The conversation about burying power lines is revisited every time power is knocked out by a large storm. The concept works in some instances, when erecting a new business office or residential development area and incorporating the associated fees into the cost of the project, but in other cases there are important drawbacks in making such an investment. Only about 1,000 miles on the PSNH power system are underground.
A study done by the Public Utilities Commission after the ice storm of 2008 showed that not only would it take 40 years to bury the entire power distribution system in New Hampshire, but it would cost $40 billion to do so.
“It would raise the rates of customers to an amount that is simply not sustainable,” Skelton said. “They would see an increase [in rates] of more than 100 percent over many years.”
Homes, businesses and towns can opt to have their lines moved underground but would be responsible for the associated costs, he added. The costs that come as a result of burying the lines are mostly for the labor, technology and permits that such a project could require.
“It’s a sensitive process … there would be a lot of disruption,” Skelton said.
The war against weather
Computers and phones sit on a long desk against a side wall of the “war room” at the Hooksett Area Work Center. On a regular day, the phones are silent. The computer monitors are dark. In the event of a storm, that station is manned day and night to take the outage reports that come pouring in.
“A lot of people think that when they lose power we know right away that their meter is off,” Kenney said. “The only way we know is if they call in.”
The Hooksett Area Work Center is one of the biggest and busiest among the dozen PSNH work centers across the state. It serves an estimated 70,000 customers.
Some account executives are assigned to working with large power customers to make sure a plan is in place to restore the electrical functions needed to keep operations going. Hospitals, schools and police and fire stations also take priority in an outage, as does major infrastructure such as waste water treatment plants. Each town served by PSNH has a community liaison, a sole point of contact (usually a police or fire chief) to get information to customers about restoration efforts. The company also tries to reach its users through traditional and social media.
Krewson leads the damage assessment charge after it has been determined which circuits are off. There is often a 24-hour period before power restoration can begin, to allow for the crews to figure out what needs to be repaired or replaced.
“That’s when you see the white pickup truck with the beacon,” Krewson said. “We figure out what equipment we need to get going.” All necessary equipment is packaged in the war room and doled out to the line crews, who can work up to 16 hours in the event of a severe storm. “We don’t want someone working a 48-hour shift working with electricity,” Kenney said of the limited number of hours PSNH employees can work. A white board on the wall helps PSNH staffers keep track of where they are sending the crews.
A policeman helped drivers navigate their vehicles around orange traffic cones lining a small stretch of Candia Road in Manchester while two line crews got to work on replacing three transformers on that February morning. Flickering lights at a business housed there had served as an indicator that something was amiss with the system in place.
The winch lines hanging from the bucket hoisted new 876-pound transformers (some transformers can weigh up to 3,200 pounds) up to the linemen waiting to bolt a bracket to the wooden utility pole to support the clunky, heavy piece of equipment (winch lines can lift up to 1,200 pounds). In addition to replacing the old overloaded transformers, the crew was tasked with running a second set of wires to the business across the road from the pole to increase the capacity of the system. PSNH makes it a point to discuss with new business owners the electrical infrastructure needed to run their operation, Skelton said. Companies are charged only for elective changes to their electrical systems.
Johnson said the equipment and resources available to the crews have improved a lot during his time at PSNH.
“Before, we used to climb poles,” he said. PSNH has joint ownership of the poles with Fairpoint Communications, and each company has designated pole maintenance areas. Fiber optic third parties lease space on the poles.
Johnson, of Hooksett, remembers the days when line crews could work up to 36-hour shifts during storms.
“In a storm, everybody was out,” he said. “There was no damage assessment back then, not to the extent there is now.” Johnson said the assessments have made his job a little easier and helped him better prepare for his assignments. Crews receive a list of assignments at the start of their shift (Johnson and his one-man crew arrive at the center at 7 a.m., Monday through Friday) and then gather all necessary equipment and materials. The lineman and foreman pairings rotate each month.
Johnson said his position is rewarding when he is able to restore power to those who’ve been living in the dark for extended periods of time. “It’s a good feeling to know I can help them,” he said.
Outages are announced in advance when large repairs are necessary.
“It’s not something where we just show up and switch off the lights,” Skelton said.
The money behind the madness
The cost of restoration after a storm is collected through the distribution rate, a built-in consumer fee that funnels into a resource account. The account totals an estimated $3 million annually, but when a large storm like the October Nor’easter ravages the state, wiping out power to most PSNH customers for more than a few days, the fund, too, usually gets wiped out, Skelton said. The cost of the restoration efforts for the October snowstorm totaled $16 million.
Having exceeded its recovery budget, PSNH had the situation reviewed by the Public Utilities Commission, a three-member governor-appointed regulatory body, which allowed the company to recover its reserves through a new set rate.
“The customers won’t feel the impact on their bills because it’s built in … throughout a number of years,” Skelton said.
Most expenses associated with electricity are the result of transportation costs, fees related to environmental regulations and the state’s having no fuel sources of its own.
“We have to balance that with finding a way to keep rates low,” Skelton said. “That’s the challenge.”
A river runs through it
Nestled on the edge of the Merrimack River next to the Amoskeag Fishways in Manchester is a small, unassuming brick building that packs a lot of power — hydroelectric power. Water from the river rushes through the building at 3,000 cubic feet per second to push the turbines of three generators, resulting in the production of 17 megawatts of electricity an hour.
Intake racks allow water from the head pond to flow under the building. After it’s been spun through the turbines, the water exits the building into the tail pond. All of the manmade debris caught in the intake rack is plucked out before the natural materials (branches, etc.) are returned to the water. Wooden and inflatable dams hold the water in the head pond, which PSNH hydro division supervisor Steve Robinson said is kept at a depth of 225 feet. The dams also keep the water flow consistent.
“We have to build power based on the flows,” Robinson said.
The lack of snow this winter has resulted in a decrease in power produced at the Amoskeag station. On a recent afternoon only two of three generators were able to run.
“If we can’t make up for that, we need to hope for rain,” Robinson said, adding that with rain, the water rises too high too quickly and is often wasted. “If we got a nice, constant rain ...we’d be golden,” he said. The hydro station often shuts down during the summer when the river starts to dry out.
The temperature of the water plays no role in how much electricity the flow generates “until it turns into ice and clogs the intake racks,” Robinson said.
Robinson noted the inflatable dams are the only real update at the hydro plant he has seen during his 37 years with PSNH.
“The old, antiquated equipment is so good, so reliable,” he said.
“Hydropower is hydropower,” Skelton said. “The technology hasn’t changed. It hasn’t needed to … water spins the turbine and that’s that.”
The generators are run by a wall-sized control panel that looks like something straight out of the first Batman movie (you know, the one with Adam West). In a small office nearby, overlooking the generators, is a computer that shows the amount of power being generated by all nine of New Hampshire’s hydro stations.
The Amoskeag station generators are connected to wires contained in pipes that run across the ceiling of the station. The power is carried over to a substation in nearby Energy Park before it’s distributed to customers. Two of the three generators were recently replaced, and the third is slated to be replaced this year at a cost of a whopping $900,000.
The Amoskeag hydro station is considered a “black start station,” meaning that if the whole grid goes black, it would still be able to produce power.
“We can start the unit without external power,” Robinson said.
Although hydroelectric power is the most affordable energy source, Skelton said the Granite State is limited in how much it can take advantage of it. There are not enough resources available in the state that have a delta between the head and tail water; as it stands, the dam at the Hooksett hydro station is only 14 feet deep. The one at Amoskeag clocks in at just under 50 feet.
Hydro-Quebec, a key player in the much-discussed Northern Pass project, has the ability to release water on demand from lakes and rivers to its hydroelectric stations, Skelton said — “They got lucky in terms of geography,” he said.
What would the Northern Pass mean for New Hampshire?
Northern Pass is a project proposed for New England by PSNH’s parent company, Northeast Utilities, and Hydro-Quebec, a Canadian hydroelectric company that would be pumping its excess power into the grid that stretches across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
“A major issue and challenge for us in New England is that there are no major fuel sources here,” Skelton said. “We have to import everything we use to burn for electricity.”
Skelton called the Northern Pass project a “perfect blend” of the goals set by PSNH: to have renewable energy and cheap energy so that businesses are able to stay and grow in the Granite State. The lower-cost energy that would come as a result of the Northern Pass project would displace inefficient and expensive forms of energy such as natural gas, coal and oil, Skelton said. Hydroelectric power and renewable sources (wind and solar) are the most affordable types of energy available, he said.
Hydroelectric power is also renewable, clean and reliable, Skelton noted. Solar and wind are considered intermittent sources of energy as they only work when the sun shines or the wind blows.
As most of the Northern Pass project is slated to go through New Hampshire (it will stretch down to Deerfield before branching out to the rest of the grid), Skelton said PSNH is in negotiations with Hydro-Quebec to set a purchase power agreement.
“Our goal is to provide energy at a flat rate and not have it hit by any spikes,” he said. PSNH facilities represent only 4 percent of the generation capacity in New England and serve only an estimated 27 percent of New Hampshire residents.
The project has gained much opposition in the Granite State as residents fear it will change the landscape and result in fee hikes. Skelton said the company recognizes that it must do a better job of communicating the details of the project to the public and has so far conducted 140 community discussions and meetings with landowners. The companies cannot invoke eminent domain on any properties being considered for the project.
The cost of the project, estimated to run between $20 million and $30 million for the New Hampshire portion alone, will be paid in full by both Hydro-Quebec and Northeast Utilities, something that Skelton said is very rare.
“Hydro-Quebec wants this,” he said. “They have excessive energy. They’re creating more than they can use.” All New Hampshire hydroelectric plants will remain open if the project continues to move forward. It is slated for completion in 2016.
A bright idea
Tom Belair, customer solutions program manager of the PSNH Energy Efficiency Services Division, was at Chill Day Spa in Manchester to buy a gift certificate for his wife when he noticed the spa was lit only by 60-watt halogen bulbs. He asked owner Krissy McQuade how many hours they ran a day, and after some quick math, he told her she would save a substantial amount of money if she switched to more energy-efficient lighting.
McQuade agreed to replace the bulbs with LED lights (a 2.4-watt LED bulb was able to take the place of a 60-watt halogen bulb at the spa).
“LEDs weren’t out two years ago,” Belair said. “We’ve got some great opportunities with this new technology.”
By replacing more than 100 bulbs at the spa, McQuade has seen nearly a 20-percent reduction in energy usage, and Belair expects her to see an estimated $2,000 savings in annual energy costs. McQuade will also see a return on her investment in less than a year and a half, Belair said.
“The savings are huge,” McQuade said. “And the fact that I don’t have to replace bulbs on a regular basis is really nice.”
Belair, who will celebrate his 30th year at PSNH in June, said most halogen bulbs only burn for around 2,200 hours. The LED bulbs installed at the spa can last up to 50,000 hours.
“And they’re actually prettier,” McQuade said. “They give off a cleaner, more natural light.” McQuade also had energy-efficient fans installed in some of the spa rooms.
“A whole industry could benefit from what Krissy just did,” Belair said. “It could be replicated elsewhere.”
“I think it’s incredible that we can have one department generating power, one department maintaining lines and another working hand in hand with companies at an intimate level like they did with Chill,” Skelton said. “It’s a testament to what we’re trying to do here, the mission we’re trying to accomplish.”
“I’m sure examples like Chill will lead to more down the road,” he said.
Skelton said he has seen an estimated 30 companies make significant investments in energy efficiency since he started working at PSNH last June. Ragged Mountain recently received a $90,000 rebate for investing in energy-efficient snow-making equipment. “They’re making lots of snow this year,” Skelton said.
Sharing some good energy
PSNH recently made a 20-year power purchase agreement with Burgess BioPower, a 75-megawatt biomass wood chip facility slated to be built in Berlin by 2013.
“We’re very proud to partner on this project,” Skelton said. “We think it will be a great source of energy to benefit our customers and will be a tremendous boon to the local economy [in Berlin] by creating new jobs and a new tax base.”
PSNH has a biomass plant of its own in Portsmouth. “We believe in having a diverse portfolio,” Skelton said. PSNH also owns part of the wind farm in Lempster.
On average, PSNH purchases 30 percent of its power from the Open Energy Market when prices are low. The prices, set per megawatt, change from minute to minute. Stock market-like tickers hang throughout the PSNH corporate office and show the most current megawatt price.
“The price reacts to demand,” Skelton said.
Practicing what they preach
You could never tell by just looking up, but much of the roof of the PSNH corporate office on Commercial Street in Manchester is covered by a 4,800-square-foot solar panel that has the ability to generate 60,000 kilowatts of electricity annually.
“We’re a big advocate for renewable energy, and this is a testament to that,” Skelton said. The wattage generated by the panels can be monitored from a computer station set up on the first floor of the building, which was originally built as a steam plant and powered textile production in the millyard until the 1960s or 1970s. The space was purchased by PSNH in 2003 and completely rehabilitated three years ago.
Energy collected in the solar panels runs into a wiring system that reaches the basement, where an inverter uses it to power the building. Skelton noted that if homeowners can afford to install solar panels, the PUC offers rebates and incentives for such initiatives.
The company purchased a Chevrolet Volt that holds its charge in the parking lot of the corporate office and is used for business-related travel. PSNH, Skelton said, has been studying the charging profile of electric cars. Charging an electric car at a house could substantially increase electricity consumption, causing great demand on the grid.
“As an electric company we … need the infrastructure to accommodate that,” Skelton said.
The staff at PSNH is constantly searching for ways to improve the company’s systems, Skelton said. In the ever-changing and rapidly growing energy market, the company is adding to its portfolio whenever possible and will continue to explore new technologies and to research renewable sources of energy. The crews will continue to climb poles (and direct others to do so) in all kinds of weather.
After spending 22 years restoring power, Johnson said his days keeping the lights on in the southern New Hampshire have flown by.
“Before you know it you’re heading back in,” he said. “The years fly, too.”