Technology and a team of hundreds help us respond quickly when the power goes outJul 16, 2019, 19:19 PM
As fires raged across Waterton National Park two summers ago, burning down major power lines in the process, Kristopher Andres supported and led his team to restore power to the area in only two days.
“That was probably one of the biggest highlights of my career in the 15 years I have worked for the company,” says Andres, a manager at FortisAlberta who oversees 26 employees at its main control centre in Airdrie.
“It was absolutely phenomenal how we could get boots on the ground, organize ourselves to pull everything together and rebuild 14 kilometres of power lines in such a short period of time. Meanwhile, we were able to move in generators to get the town up and running again while the area remained evacuated — all those firefighters needed water, after all.”
Following this temporary restoration of power, and considering the complexities of working in an environmentally sensitive area, the company then completed the amazing feat of rebuilding 11 kilometres of line in 21 days.
As the owner and operator of more than 60 per cent of Alberta’s total electricity distribution network, FortisAlberta delivers electricity to more than one million of Alberta’s population, including residential, farm and business customers across the province. It is able to do this safely and reliably, thanks to a state-of-the-art control centre boasting technology that monitors, controls and restores the delivery of power remotely across the entire province, while processing data in real time.
While the control centre, which opened in 2012, is based in Airdrie, power can be restored quickly anywhere within the operating area of FortisAlberta — often without needing to send a truck out to determine the problem in person.
The system, called SCADA, which stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition, is as efficient as it is awe-inspiring, says Andres.
“It’s really amazing to see how it works — essentially how it troubleshoots itself by talking to different devices, turning this switch on or another switch off depending on the information that is relayed, and really pinpointing specific issues of concern in the communities we serve.”
The work involved in restoring power starts long before an outage happens — by proactively ensuring all the necessary people and equipment are on hand and available to respond. That’s why FortisAlberta has a team of 350 line workers spread throughout the province — they can respond quickly to outages in any of the 240 communities served, with 124,000 kilometres of power distribution lines. To put this into perspective, the length of the company’s power distribution lines could wrap around the world three times.
And when an outage does occur, the company offers customers unparalleled transparent outage management, including real-time updates through its mobile app, as well as online reporting.
“Technology helps a lot, but we still need people in the field to get the power back on in many cases — we still have to complete manual work,” says Lee Morrow, a lead power line technician who has worked at FortisAlberta since 2011.
In his time with the company, Morrow has seen his fair share of storms. A few years ago, a turbulent summer storm caused a 24-metre tall tree to fall on a stretch of overhead line in Airdrie, which subsequently shut off power to 6,000 residents in numerous surrounding neighbourhoods.
That piece of line fed power to the entire northeast section of Airdrie, but thanks to the SCADA system, which pinpointed where the problem was and restored pieces of the line remotely within minutes, the extent of the outage was quickly reduced to the few hundred people served directly by the portion of the line with the tree on it.
Morrow and his crew went out into the field to inspect the damage, found and removed the tree, and started doing restoration switching.
“It took 45 minutes from when the outage started to being able to completely restore power using backup feeds,” says Morrow. “Then, it took an additional two hours to remove the tree and another hour to switch things back to normal.”
“The automation system plays a big role in restoring power to as many customers as it can immediately — it takes from 30 seconds to two or three minutes to move electrical currents around in the lines. Without this system, it can take much longer, especially when you’re dealing with underground lines that have been damaged,” says Morrow.
Given the hands-on nature of his work, Morrow appreciates the company’s push for safety on the job.
“All possible measures are taken to keep the sites safe for employees and customers and prevent injury or further damage,” he says. “Every day at work is different, which makes it more enjoyable. It definitely keeps it interesting.”