During Christmastime, snow often blankets the Midwestern states. In 2015, however, torrential rains and subsequent flooding struck Missouri and Illinois.
In turn, Ameren, which serves both states, took proactive measures to monitor changing conditions, dispatched crews, restored power and implemented contingency plans using mobile substations. Ameren Missouri turned the power back on for the 1,800 customers affected by the flood, while Ameren Illinois continually monitored the flood levels and had crews standing by to assist any of its customers/communities affected by flooding. In addition, Ameren Illinois disconnected electric and gas service for customers in flood-stricken areas to allow for a safer restoration once the floodwaters subsided.
Setting Up Mobile Substations
In Illinois, crews took a proactive approach to the restoration process by setting up a portable substation on high ground in Prairie du Rocher, a community near the Mississippi River. Fortunately, the utility didn’t experience any substantial damage or outages due to the flooding. However, as a precautionary measure to ensure its customers’ power stayed on, the linemen set up the mobile substation.
Then to keep the mobile substation safe and secure, the crew set up a temporary fence and staged 24-hour security around the equipment. Because the linemen set up the mobile substation in a high-traffic area, they took extra precautionary steps to make the local community aware that it was an active, energized substation.
The utility has 20 portable substations already secured on trailers and ready to be transported where they are needed. As such, they can take over the work of damaged substations and restore power to thousands of homes while repairs are made. Ameren Illinois maintains several portable substations at its material distribution center in Decatur, Illinois, and stages several other portable substations at operating centers throughout its 43,700-sq mile service territory.
Over the last few years, the utility has rolled the mobile substations to flood- and storm-stricken areas throughout central and southern Illinois. The equipment is available in different voltages and sizes to handle different restoration situations and can be easily hooked up by a field crew to carry the load from the existing substation to the mobile unit.
To get the mobile substations up and running, linemen must pull the heavy equipment into the desired location, install cables to the portable unit, energize it and then perform switching to transfer load from the damaged or flooded substation to the portable unit.
At some locations, work has already been done to facilitate easy installation of a portable unit. For example, in Petersburg, Illinois, linemen set up a mobile substation on higher ground than the existing substation. That way, the utility could keep the power flowing in case the current substation needed to be removed from service due to flooding. When a flood did threaten the substation, Ameren employees took extra precautions by sealing the control panels to prevent possible damage from the expected 6 ft of floodwaters. Even as the water began to reach the bottom of the breaker, Ameren Illinois was able to keep the substation energized. In this particular situation, the river crested before the substation needed to be taken out of service and portable substations were put into service, but the preventative measures helped to circumvent a potential outage.
In another event early in 2015, before a springtime flood hit the rural southern section of eastern Illinois, Ameren Illinois set up a mobile substation near the Kentucky border. During that event, the Ohio River did overflow, but the utility had a plan in action to keep the power on for its customers using a portable substation. As a result of its success using the mobile substations, the utility is planning on increasing the size of the portable substation fleet to offer more flexibility in upcoming storms, floods, and maintenance or construction of facilities. For example, the utility was able to keep the power on in Kewanee, Illinois, with a mobile substation during construction of a new substation.
By setting up mobile substations, Ameren Illinois can take a proactive approach to reducing or eliminating customer outages due to flooding, equipment damage or prearranged construction/maintenance work. Not all damage, however, can be prevented. Case in point: during the January 2016 flood, the utility had to deal with an unexpected outage, which affected 55 residential customers and one grain elevator. While the outage was small, the damage to the utility’s infrastructure was significant.
It all started on a Sunday morning when an outage was reported in Florence, a small community on the Illinois River. Torrential rain caused the river to flood outside the banks and onto nearby fields, where Ameren Illinois had an H-frame distribution structure. About 12 ft to 20 ft of water flooded the adjacent land.
A southbound towboat pushing 12 barges along the Illinois River struck a bridge. Several barges broke loose, and one hit and heavily damaged an H-frame pole structure on the flooded bank. Ameren Illinois immediately dispatched personnel to perform switching, isolate the conductor going across the river, and get all the customers back in service.
In just four-and-a-half hours, Ameren Illinois was able to restore power, but it still faced hurdles when it came to the damaged structures. To prevent any further issues on the river, the utility notified the Coast Guard, which closed down a section of the Illinois River for two days to give workers time to remove the conductor and poles from the river.
In assessing the damage, Ameren Illinois was concerned the damaged infrastructure may begin floating down the river if the conductor was cut, causing additional damage down river. The utility was also concerned with safety because of conductor tension on the damaged poles. Ameren Illinois turned to a transmission crew who was working on a nearby river crossing to provide the expertise needed to safely remove the conductor and poles from the river.
At daylight, the utility dispatched a Henkels & McCoy crew. The transmission contractor quickly arrived on site to assess the situation and review options for clearing the Illinois River. They determined that the safest option was to use a St. Louis-based barge company to bring a track hoe and lift on a barge to Florence. Using a 100-ft man lift and clamshell-type bucket, the Henkels & McCoy crew was able to safely relieve the tension, unclip the 850-ft conductors, and pull the conductor and broken poles out of the river. Once the line was removed, the Coast Guard reopened the Illinois River for barge traffic.
While Ameren Illinois and a contractor crew successfully remedied the situation, linemen still need to rebuild the line when floodwaters have receded. In the meantime, crews have installed a temporary feed with regulators to the grain elevator to ensure it could run at full capacity during this challenge.
This spring, the utility expects to return to Florence to permanently reconstruct the river crossing. The engineering department is now reviewing the best way to build the H-frame structure. By working with the barge contracting crew and quickly restoring power, the utility was able to get the lights back on for its customers in Florence, even after the unprecedented outage on the river crossing.
Craig Gilson is the senior director of operations for Ameren Illinois. He has worked in the utility industry since 1982.
Editor’s note: To see a video of the restoration process, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deO_WlO5rr4.
Ameren Lends a Helping Hand to Flood Victims
Ameren not only helped its own customers following the flood, but it also helped the local community fund its cleanup process and flood-relief efforts. The utility pledged a $50,000 donation to the American Red Cross as part of the Ameren Cares initiative. This program connects Ameren with the communities it serves through charitable giving and volunteering. By partnering with nonprofit organization, the program strives to improve the quality of life in Ameren’s service territory in Missouri and Illinois.
Cindy Erickson, CEO of the American Red Cross of Eastern Missouri, says the donation will be very useful for the community.
“This generous donation from Ameren will help us provide real help and hope to our neighbors who lost their homes, belongings, and security in the Christmas floodwaters,” Erickson says. “Ameren continues to be a critical partner when this region experiences a crisis.”
Following the flood, the American Red Cross was able to deliver more than 21,000 meals and snacks and provide more than 670 shelter night stays. Also, volunteers distributed clean-up supplies in Arnold, Valley Park and Portage Des Sioux, Missouri.
Michael Moehn, president, Ameren Missouri, says his company’s thoughts went out to those affected by the unprecedented floodwaters.
“Ameren employees have been working diligently to assist families, friends and neighbors within the flooded communities,” Moehn says. “We hope this donation will provide some relief during this difficult time for our customers and our community.”