When A Major Storm Hit the Kansas City Area in 2002, our utility experienced substantial damage to its service territory. Independence Power & Light (IPL; Independence, Missouri, U.S.) was able to get our main feeders back in operation in less than a week and most of our laterals back up over the next week, but those unfortunate customers with damaged service drops were without power for a considerable while longer. It was tough coming back from a storm of this magnitude. Everyone had to work long hours to rebuild our distribution system and restore electric service.

After the 2002 storm, my boss challenged me to see how we might reduce the length of outages if another storm of the same magnitude were to hit. We already knew that, on average, catastrophic events like the 2002 storm occur every 15 years and reasonably large ice storms occur in the Kansas City area every five years or so.

Due to the devastation caused by the 2002 storm, our region was declared a national disaster area, but we weren't sure exactly what that meant for an electric utility. So we did some research, starting at the state level. We discovered that the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency has a disaster-mitigation grant program with most funds historically going toward flood-damage mitigation.

Could we qualify for funds to help us prepare for the next big storm? We believed that damage caused by ice storms every few years was surely similar to recurring flood damage. Why should we continue to reinstall overhead services storm after storm after storm? We decided to pursue the seemingly out-of-reach solution to “bury” enough at-risk residential service drops to measurably affect the outage duration.

We found that we could reduce costs by hiring smaller contractors in the region to bury residential services. I was excited to learn that a single service could be converted from overhead to underground for around US$1250. As we acquired data to support our grant application, in-depth analysis revealed that ice on service drops wasn't causing a significant problem. Instead, the weight of ice on tree limbs was causing limbs to break and fall, taking services with them.

IPL filed for a state grant to bury those residential services that had been damaged in the 2002 ice storm. When the grant was approved, we were ecstatic. With this one grant, we were able to place 1300 customer services underground. We later discovered funds allocated for the 2002 storm that hadn't been used, so we applied for another grant and surprisingly received sufficient funds to place another 1400 customers underground. We were making a difference!

But what about the availability of other funding? With a little more research, we found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Department of Homeland Security has a process to award Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) funds. If we could show we had an effective cost-mitigation strategy to proactively improve the reliability of our system, we might be approved for additional funding. Again, amazingly, we were successful. We've now received two PDM grants and are using those funds to place another 3700 services underground. To date, we have received sufficient funds to place 6500 customers underground.

Where is IPL today? We've made adjustments to our service policy, so that any customer asking for a new service or upgrading an existing service must place their service underground. Infill lots are now required to have an underground service. IPL has also taken the step to require a customer's service to be buried if it has been damaged more than once by trees. One option IPL offers is a payment plan where we cover half the cost of underground service with the customer paying the difference, which in some cases is less than $10 per month.

IPL also is budgeting funds annually to convert portions of its overhead system to underground. A significant portion of the funds are being used to bury facilities along roadway re-vitalization projects as all citizens benefit from the improved aesthetic and reliability benefits of these investments.

IPL routinely receives calls from around the country about its underground program. Interest has been greatest in sections of Oklahoma and Missouri that have experienced recurring storm damage to their electric distribution systems over the past few years.

Developing a burial program to reduce the impact of major storms is not easy. However, I encourage our industry to find new ways to take costs out of operating our distribution systems rather than pouring in dollars every time a storm hits.

With perseverance and a little ingenuity, we all can harden our distribution systems so that we can recover faster from whatever Mother Nature throws our way, and maybe even keep our rates down. Here in Independence, a city with a population of 110,000, we find our customers appreciate our efforts.

Jack Looney is district engineering planner supervisor at Independence Power & Light. Looney has spent his career at Missouri public-owned electric utilities, working in distribution planning and engineering positions. JLOONEY@indepmo.org