BUFFALO, N.Y. — 2 On Your Side got an inside look the operations center that controls electricity going to 472,000 residential customers, along with thousands of commercial and industrial customers, in Western New York.
"You're trying to put a huge puzzle back together the best way you can and not guessing at what it's going to be," said Jeremiah Belknap, National Grid overhead line manager for the Frontier Region.
National Grid's eight-hundred regional employees train year-round to handle any massive power outages caused by storms. They also train with outside groups including state, county, and local agencies.
"A lot of times, it's historical data that we use to make sure that we got enough people in to do what we've got to do during the roughest of storms," Belknap said.
2 On Your Side recently got a rare look inside National Grid's Regional Control Center, a massive room full of computers, and the people who control our electricity.
"Here we operate the electric system, the substations, and dispatch trouble jobs to our crews to fix problems reported by the public," said Tim Bain, director of National Grid's Western Regional Control Center.
"And this is a highly secure area," 2 On Your Side's Kelly Dudzik said.
"It is," Bain said.
Tim Bain runs the control center and is in charge of monitoring and controlling the electric system. He says there are three basic systems that control and restore power.
One is the outage management system.
"What are those dots?" Dudzik asked.
"Power outages and trouble calls. In our area, we have just one customer out of power in the Western Division. And across New York State, we have about 160 customers out. If you zoom out, this is an internal company site that allows us to look at those power outages. It also has our crews on there if you zoom in close enough, and our circuits, but it shows weather as well," Bain said.
And keeping an eye on the forecast is a big part of Bain's job.
One computer program allows him to track storms heading for Western New York to see if they have a history of knocking out power.
"There's a number rating system based on wind gusts up to 40 miles an hour, it might a level two. Heavy wet snow, it might be a level three. Things like that allow us make some decisions about how we're going to staff and be prepared for what could possibly happen," Bain said.
When restoring power, critical care facilities are a priority. That category of facilities includes hospitals, nursing homes, wastewater treatment plants, sewer treatment plants, police and fire stations, and schools. They are all defined in a massive emergency response plan that is hundreds of pages long.
National Grid also focuses on the largest outages.
"We will start to work those immediately, and we work our way down through our restoration priority list," said Ken Kujawa, National Grid regional director. "Until we ultimately get down to what we call singles, which is a customer service wire may be down.
"Those usually come at the end because it's an individual customer that's out. It doesn't mean they're any less important to National Grid, but the way that our restoration priorities are established, we need to work the largest jobs first and then work our way down."
As crews assess damage, your estimated time of restoration, or ETR, can change.
"Once we set our, I guess, estimated times of restorations to a certain time, people think, OK, this is that time that we're going to have power back, and a lot of times, it changes throughout the day, throughout the, if it's a couple day storm, it will change. That's the hardest thing to nail down," Belknap said.
"A lot of times, we try to work up to a certain point and that time will change because we can energize maybe a portion of what we just did and then the people beyond that are still waiting, and you know, could be the same time as we originally set it as."
Right now, the system heavily relies on customers reporting outages themselves. But in the future, smart meters will report them automatically.
"Before this decade is out, all of our customers in Upstate New York will have a smart meter installed in their home, and as Jeremiah said, it's going to give us the ability to not even have to wait for a customer to call, or send a text, and say we're out of power. We're going to know immediately," Kujawa said.
National Grid says if you lose power, you can get the most accurate estimated time of restoration by logging into your account online. That allows you to look up your address instead of just seeing the generic restoration time for your neighborhood that anyone can see on the website.