Time to Reevaluate Backup Powering

As the East Coast continues to clean up and assess the damage after Hurricane Sandy and the following Nor'Easter, the major cable players in the hardest hit regions continue network repairs. While still in the midst of recovery, perhaps it is too soon to talk about lessons learned from the viewpoint of specific MSOs. But in general, the scope of the storm and the duration of power outages have raised a few points to consider when evaluating a disaster/recovery plan.

For starters, among the problems caused by Sandy is a shortage of fuel. An emergency power plan is only as good as the fuel that runs the backup powering system. If that runs out, so too does the power. "When you look at examples coming out of New York, people are carrying buckets of diesel fuel to rooftop generators ... you don't want to have to go to that extreme level," said Derek DiGiacomo, senior director of information systems and energy management programs for the SCTE.

The SCTE's Smart Energy Management Initiative ( SEMI) expanded its scope last year beyond reducing energy consumption to emergency preparedness. While the program is still building out its recommended practices, one of the tenets will be for a comprehensive strategy for sustainability and disaster recovery, that is not just about a single technology solution, DiGiacomo said.

Rather, it should include things like a fuel refilling schedule (not just hydrogen or diesel for the backup power systems, but also for the trucks used by technicians), access to the equipment needed for repairs, and a point person to execute the plan. "We are approaching this as an end-to-end analysis," DiGiacomo said. "(You) can't look to a specific technology. (There) needs to be comprehensive disaster planning to ensure you are meeting the needs of customers."

Along these lines, one idea is to have more than one type of backup system - a diesel generator, solar panels, or a hydrogen fuel cell, for example, said Mark Alrutz, director of technical sales, services and training for CommScope. "If the diesel supply chain is broken, the hydrogen supply chain could function. It doesn't come through the same refineries and gas stations."

Even still, there could be need for a backup to the backups. A standby powering system may be designed to bridge the gap for a four- to six-hour outage. "Outages with natural disasters will be longer than the standby time designed into the system," said Eric Wentz, VP of marketing for the Alpha Group.

A trailer full of portable generators and the hardware necessary to hook them up could do the trick, Wentz said. "(With) the generators housed in a single trailer, you can deploy as needed, as opposed to at the time you need it, trying to source the hardware."

Additionally, only a portion of a city may have an extended power outage. "Customers could have lights, but no broadband service, unless there is a mechanism and design in place that would allow the delivery network to have a source of power even if it passed through the outage," Wentz said, noting that the portable generators could come in handy in this situation as well.

Stakes are Higher

The bottom line is that in this day and age, a good backup strategy is becoming increasingly important. Savvy customers own their own generators and expect their homes to have a dial tone on their phones and Internet access to help them stay connected, DiGiacomo said.

And as cable operators continue to add business customers, the ability to continue service throughout a weather emergency is paramount. "You have to (know) what customers are hanging off of what lines in the plant and make sure your backup meets the SLAs," DiGiacomo said. "Otherwise, you need to acquire an additional backup solution to match the expectations. It is a brand protection strategy."

At the same time, budgets may be smaller.  Smart technology like remote diagnostics could help. By monitoring the status of the batteries in a backup system, replacement can be prioritized. "As opposed to 100 battery systems being replaced in the same calendar year and having a spike in capital investment, if only half of the systems are due for a change, you can spread the capital investment over multiple years," Wentz said.

Fuel cells, on the other hand, don't require battery replacement at all, Alrutz said. "The only thing required to be maintained is the air filter, which should be changed once a year, and the radiator fluid, which we recommend changing every five years."

Monta Monaco Hernon is a free-lance writer. She can be reached at mcmhern@yahoo.com.

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