Storms, suburban sprawl force infrastructure upgrades

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No one thinks about electricity while it’s working. One simply flips a switch and expects it to be there – that is until events such as Snowmageddon in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 slammed the East Coast, leaving thousands without power, some for weeks.

Efforts to improve the reliability of the region’s power supply were already under way, according to Joe Nixon, a spokesman for PPL Utilities Inc. of Allentown. He noted that PPL had just completed a three-year project of vegetation management to clear trees and brush from areas where they were in danger of knocking down lines.

Even with the completed work, those big storms in 2011 and 2012 did significant damage to “bulk lines” – the lines that carry the highest voltage out to the distribution lines that are found in most neighborhoods.

“After Sandy, we saw that even more needed to be done,” Nixon said, adding that PPL realized that it also had to tackle the lower voltage and neighborhood distribution lines.

“It’s a big effort,” he said.

The latest project in the effort was announced by PPL Utilities last week.

PPL said it plans to rebuild a power line that provides electricity to more than 27,800 customers in Lehigh, Northampton and Bucks counties.

The line, called the Quarry-Seidersville transmission line, runs along the border of Bethlehem and Freemansburg to Lower Saucon Township.

Fault detectors will be installed to tell operators where any damage is located and help to speed repairs and restoration of power. New, remotely controlled motorized switches can be used to isolate a damaged part of the line and restore power more quickly to customers elsewhere on the line.

The company said the project will make the power line much less likely to be knocked out by high winds or lightning strikes.

Robert Mateff Sr., director of Northampton County Emergency Services, said he’s already seen improvements in line maintenance.

“They have improved. I can see the impact, especially with tree management. I can drive around and see that the lines are clear,” he said.

$1 BILLION INVESTMENT THIS YEAR

Nixon emphasized that preventing storm damage is only one piece of a very large puzzle that PPL needs to assemble to improve service.

He said commercial and residential development in many areas of the Lehigh Valley and Pocono regions has maxed out some of the capabilities of their infrastructure.

“We’re looking in places where 20, 30 years ago you didn’t have that many homes. Something we may have installed in the ’60s or ’70s may have reached the end of its usefulness, capacity-wise.”

To meet that demand, Nixon said, PPL plans to invest nearly $1 billion this year alone to improve system reliability.

“We’re investing in the system much like we did during that last big build-out 40, 50 years ago,” he said.

GROWTH IS SLOWING

Indeed, PPL’s capital investments have been on the upswing for the past several years. In 2009, the company invested $301 million. That figure increased to $429 million in 2010 and to $684 million last year.

Work has included replacing aged equipment and power lines, upgrading other electrical facilities and building new lines and substations where needed.

Michael Kaiser, director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, said the utility may see a little relief in growth – at least in one measure of it. A report issued last week showed a significant drop in new housing subdivision plans in 2012. Only 151 final plans were submitted in 2012 as compared to 439 in 2003 – the start of the housing bubble.

“And there’s not a lot of evidence that much will be happening [in the near future],” he said.

UPGRADE IN TECHNOLOGY

But, while a continued dropoff in new housing might give some relief, it is only one part of a bigger picture.

“The grand issue is reliability,” said Nixon.

Upgrading means a lot of updated technology with automated equipment to allow the system to react faster and even reroute power on its own, he said.

The ultimate goal is to make power outages less frequent and shorter.

That goal is shared by other electric utilities in the region, who also felt the wrath of the two major storms and the ongoing burden of expansion.

At First Energy’s Met-Ed territory in eastern Pennsylvania, regional spokesman Scott Surgeoner said the company is continuing to work on the infrastructure improvement it plans to make in the territory, post-Sandy.

Surgeoner said the utility is in the final stage of developing the plan.

Stacy Wescoe

Stacy Wescoe

Writer and online editor Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 104. Follow her on Twitter at @morestacy and on Facebook. Circle Stacy Wescoe on .

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