No joking around after April Fools’ Day ice storm

A man in the foreground and one in bucket prepare to fix a wood pole

Crews work to get wood structures assembled.

April 2 came with an icy North Dakota surprise, but it was no April Fools’ joke!

The ice storm that swept through the North Dakota country side brought several power lines to the ground, twisting and mangling dozens of the lines’ supporting steel and wood structures. Specifically, Western lost 56 wood structures and 66 steel structures on two different lines. Additionally, local utilities lost lines as well.

As soon as it was safe and the storm had passed, Western and several of its customers sent crews out to start restoring the grid and returning power to consumers in the area. Within 18 days our crews repaired 56 wood-pole structures and restored power southwest of Mandan, N.D.

Then crews moved on to repair damage on the steel 230 kV line west of Mandan. “Crews from North and South Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming immediately moved on to repair or replace steel structures with more than 100 wood pole structures on one of our Bismarck lines,” said North Dakota Maintenance Manager Tom Price.

A man walks in front of a tractor pulling conductor back on to the structure.

Crews begin to restring conductor.

Throughout April and May, Western crews juggled their commitments to work and schedule outages in their usual service territories while helping with in the North Dakota restoration project. “While some employees had to come and go to keep other work in progress, most were there until the more than 100 structures were set,” said Tom.

Once a majority of the work was complete, many of Western’s crews headed back home. “Then the remaining crews handled getting the transmission lines reconnected and secure,” said Tom. Finally, after more than a month and a half of sun up to sun down repair work, Western energized the last of the damaged lines on May 21.

Catching up on planned work
Now that the repair work is complete, our dedicated crews and linemen have moved on to other planned projects that had been put on hold during the storm repair work. “There are still months of cleanup of the many broken insulators, wood, steel remains and conductor left on the ground,” said Tom. “But the lines are back up and the crews did an amazing job, working quickly while always maintaining safety for themselves, their co-workers and the public.”

The North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives also posted videos of the downed structures and work crews did to get the power back online.

Not so ‘shocking’ ways to be safe

Here at Western working with high-voltage electricity is just part of the job. Our employees who work on the 500-kV transmission lines, in the substations and in the switch yards take care every day to protect themselves, their co-workers and the public from electrical hazards.

It’s not surprising that most of the electrical issues our crews face in the field, many people also find at a lower voltage in and around their homes and neighborhoods.

Electrical safety hits home

As May is Electrical Safety Month, I talked with Electrical Engineer John Quintana. He shared that on occasion he does his own electrical work at home. “I remember one time I was installing a ceiling fan at home and out of convenience, I turned off the electricity at the light switch, but not at the circuit breaker. Well, the wires I was cutting into also supplied continuous power to wall outlets, and one of the wires stays hot.  I ended up causing a mini explosion in my ceiling and melting a good set of pliers. But fortunately, I was lucky enough not to be electrocuted,” he recalled.

“One thing to think about; our trained and highly skilled craft employees do not work with low-voltage equipment without properly disconnecting it from service and making it safe through lock-out-tag-out procedures. So we all should do the same,” John added.

In fact, the best way to avoid electrical injuries with home projects is to leave it to the professionals. Hire a qualified, licensed electrician to do the home improvement project.

But if you’re more handy around the house, follow the Electrical Safety Foundation International’s recommended safety tips before undertaking any home electrical project:

  • Make an effort to learn about your home electrical system so that you can safely navigate and maintain it.
  • Never attempt a project that is beyond your skill level. Knowing when to call a professional may help prevent electrical fires, injuries and fatalities.
  • Always turn off the power to the circuit that you plan to work on by switching off the circuit breaker in the main service panel.
  • Be sure to unplug any lamp or appliance before working on it.
  • Test the wires before you touch them to make sure that the power has been turned off.
  • Never touch plumbing or gas pipes when performing a do-it-yourself electrical project.
  • Never stand in a puddle or on a damp floor when working directly on or near electricity.
  • Always have your work inspected upon completion to ensure that it has been done correctly.

Beware of high voltage

While our employees are highly trained to handle high-voltage electricity on the job, there are some simple ways you can protect yourself from dangerous situations. While they may seem obvious, remember these three safety tips:

  1. Look up! If you’re flying a kite or using tall equipment on your farm or near your home, look above you and ensure you’re not near a power line.
  2. Read and follow signs. Warning signs are all around high-voltage equipment and facilities, like substations, transformers, etc. Do what they say and stay out! It will keep you out of danger and out of trouble.
  3. Leave it alone. If you see a power line on the ground or stuck in a tree, report it to your local utility. Don’t touch or go near a downed power line.

“You should always treat power lines as if they are hot [energized],” said John. “Our electrical systems are all interconnected, so call the local utility. Even if it isn’t their line that is down, they will be able to alert the proper utility.”

Question of the week:

What electrical sources do you take for granted (or forget about) when working on a project?

Western promotes industry through Science Bowl

Western, as part of the Department of Energy, promotes students interests in the science industry through the National Science Bowl. From Arizona and California to North and South Dakota, students and sponsors, including Western, participated in annual regional Science Bowl competitions vying for a seat at the national competition held every spring in Washington, D.C. Throughout Western’s regions, employees dedicated their time to serve as scientific judges, moderators, rule judges, scorekeepers and timekeepers at local Science Bowls. This is one way Western reaches out to local communities. As a result we witness the ultimate benefit of seeing these teenagers developing the skills to possible work in the energy industry.

The fast-paced Jeopardy-style competition challenged students’ knowledge of astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, current events in the scientific community, computer, earth and general sciences.

Teams from across the nation who took home the first-place medal at their regional competitions received the all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national competition, April 29 through May 4.

“In additional to the national competition, students also participate in scientific activities, seminars and sightseeing,” said Bill Valdez, Director of the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists, which administers the National Science Bowl®. “

Closing out the National Science Bowl’s® 20th year, one team within Western’s region held out to until the very end. Mira Loma High School, the 2009 National Science Bowl champions, made it to the final round and placed second to North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. Placing second is a victory in itself; with 68 high schools competing it’s quite an honor to make it to the final round.  Mira Loma High School team members won Nspire calculators provided by Texas Instruments and Computer Based Laboratories/2 and brought back $1,000 for their school’s science program.

As the 2010 championship, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics team, received an all-expense paid science research trip to study the ecosystems of Belize in Central America.

From the six Western-sponsored regional science bowl competitions, the following high schools made it to the national competition last week:

  • Arizona—BASIS Charter High School
  • California—Mira Loma High School (2009 NSB champions and 2010 2nd place winners)
  • Colorado—Poudre High School (placed in the top 16 National teams)
  • Montana—C. M. Russell High School
  • North Dakota—Red River High School
  • South Dakota—Greater Sioux Falls Home School Association

All national participants received certificates and won small prizes for activities. The teams who advanced to the elimination round earned a monetary prize for their school. Top teams also received trophies and other awards, including science trips for the high school teams.

There was even a middle school competition that Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu and First Lady Michelle Obama attended as moderators. Secretary Chu said on the White House blog, “Today, First Lady Michelle Obama and I have the distinct pleasure of lending a hand at the National Science Bowl – an impressive display of the scientific talents of our young people. “