Lessons of blackout learned


POSTED: Friday, December 25, 2009

One year ago tomorrow, the lights went out on Oahu and 293,000 Hawaiian Electric Co. customers—including then-President-elect Barack Obama—lost power for up to 20 hours.

Lightning—perhaps five strikes on transmission lines in 20 minutes—is blamed for triggering the islandwide power failure.

After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants and more money on system upgrades, HECO says if another blackout were to happen, there are more options to restore power to customers. But another islandwide outage is still possible.

Company spokesman Darren Pai said outside experts have confirmed that HECO “;could not have reasonably prevented the outage from occurring or from it becoming islandwide.”;

Since last year a new $193 million combustion-turbine generator has gone online at Campbell Industrial Park, and independent power producer Kalealoa Partners has added to HECO's ability to restart the grid sooner in another total power failure, Pai said.





        Dec. 26-27, 2008, blackout time line:

» 6 p.m. Dec. 26: A concentrated lightning storm hovers over Oahu.


» 6:13-6:42 p.m.: Five lighting strikes are recorded at Hawaiian Electric Co. The lightning knocks out four of HECO's largest power lines, each carrying 138,000 volts from the Kahe and Waiau power plants to Central Oahu.


» 6:38 p.m.: The first generator at the Waiau power plant goes offline because of instability on the grid. The instability trips off other generators as the system tries to balance the peak 1,100-megawatt power demand with the ability of the utility to generate electricity.


» 6:54 p.m.: The entire power grid begins to go dark.


» 8:30 p.m.: The last generator, which had been supplying electricity to a small area around the Kahe power plant, goes offline.


» 1 a.m. Dec. 27: Power begins to be restored.


» After dawn: A visual check of power lines by helicopter is conducted to make sure the lines can be recharged without causing another power failure.


» 3 p.m.: Power is restored to the last major circuit on Oahu.




But restoring power remains a painstaking process of balancing generating capacity and demand, and it would still take several hours for everyone to get their electricity back, Pai said.

HECO is conducting a cost-benefit risk analysis to see what can be done and how much it would cost to further protect its transmission lines from lightning strikes, which are relatively rare in Hawaii, Pai said.

“;We are looking at different options to see if they are practical and feasible,”; Pai said.

Last year's outage came just two years after an islandwide blackout on Oct. 15, 2006, caused by a 6.7-magnitude earthquake and aftershock off the Big Island.

The lessons generated out of that blackout helped the government response last year, state and city officials said.

In 2006 most operations at Honolulu Airport were shut down by a lack of backup power. Even the toilets did not work without electricity.

Last year there were still delays and temporary bathroom closures, but two-thirds of the airport was operational three hours into the blackout after engineers started up emergency generators installed after 2006.

State Civil Defense Vice Director Ed Teixeira said that after 2006 the state helped KZOO, a Japanese-language radio station, and KNDI, which broadcasts in 12 different languages, to get backup generators so people who do not speak English can get information in an emergency. The state is also helping KREA, a Korean language station, to broadcast in Korean in an emergency.

The state has also stockpiled oxygen and emergency generators to help people who need electricity to power medical equipment to keep them alive.

“;There are a number of people in the community who rely on biomedical equipment for the health and survival,”; said Toby Clairmont, director of emergency services for the Healthcare Association of Hawaii.

He said at least 200 people went to hospitals during last year's blackout to get access to electricity to power medical devices.

“;We (hospitals) don't have the capabilities to do that for people,”; Clairmont said.

Clairmont and Teixeira said people with medical conditions who depend on electricity need to have a plan for a blackout.

“;Many have it; most don't,”; Clairmont said. The association, which represents hospitals, nursing homes, hospice and home care providers, is recommending the state and city set up emergency shelters for patients with electrical needs in the event of another blackout.

“;One of the biggest lessons we learned was close communications with HECO,”; said Peter Hirai, deputy director of the city's Department of Emergency Management.

The city and the electric company are finalizing an agreement to include the utility in the city's emergency radio system.

The city is also getting a backup generator to its backup generator after the emergency management center suffered a brief power outage last year when its backup generator malfunctioned.

Because the blackout happened when Obama and his family were in town for Christmas, the event received global publicity.

But Marsha Weinert, the state tourism liaison, said she has not heard of any impact on visitor arrivals because of the blackout.

“;They (tourists) understood the situation and that there was nothing that could be done,”; Weinert said.

She credits the holiday mood, the aloha spirit and entrepreneurs with gas cooking appliances for keeping visitors fed and taken care of during the power failure.

Still, HECO and civil defense officials were watching the weather closely during a recent lightning storm.

“;Winter isn't over,”; Teixeira said. “;We're not out of the woods yet.”;