By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
EVERETT — When the power goes off, Snohomish County Public Utility District employees organize their efforts to restore electricity from a small command center in south Everett that’s decades old with antiquated equipment.
That soon will be a thing of the past.
On Tuesday, the utility showed off its new $13 million center to handle the day-to-day management of the electricity grid and also work through power outages during the storms that buffet the county.
The current cumbersome system for mapping power outages will be replaced by an automatic electronic mapping system and an easier-to-use physical map as a backup.
“We won’t have to work nearly as hard to get the same result. We can focus on things that are much more important,” said Chris Heimgartner, an assistant general manager for the PUD.
Ultimately, long-term electronic upgrades that will enable crews to restore power more quickly during outages will be more easily accommodated in the new, 37,000-square-foot space near the Boeing plant, Heimgartner said.
The PUD will move its staff from the current operations center next door to the new building over the course of the next couple of months, officials said. The current center will be remodeled into administrative offices.
About 80 people, many of them employees, attended an opening ceremony Tuesday for the new building.
“If we tried to squeeze all of you into our (current) decades-old energy center, you wouldn’t fit,” PUD general manager Steve Klein told the group.
The current building was remodeled into an operations center 40 years ago. Then, the PUD served 120,000 customers. Now it serves 325,000.
In the “EC-DC” — the Energy Control and Data Center — outages and power shutoffs for repairs will be mapped automatically, electronically. Currently, it’s all done by hand with pegs and flags on a map of Snohomish County and Camano Island that’s about 84 feet long and 12 feet high.
Electronic mapping allows the information to flow into a control system that enables crews to respond to power outages more quickly and efficiently, Heimgartner said. This will be in place as soon as this fall, he said.
It’s the first step toward the PUD’s conversion to a “smart grid,” in which sensors will be placed throughout the system to detect outages. These sensors will relay the information to the operations center, providing a much more precise location at the outset than when the utility had to rely on exclusively on phone calls from customers. The PUD is in the beginning stages of implementing this system, Heimgartner said.
It could have been done in the old center but the electronics would have had to be maneuvered and manipulated into a building that wasn’t made for all the gadgetry, he said.
The new data center, he said, “is a room that was built to be a data center.”
The status of the grid is shown in lights on a grid map 17 feet wide by 15 feet tall. It’s at the end of the curved, 138-foot long map where outages will still be mapped by hand as a backup.
It will be much easier for staff to do it in the new center than in the current one, however. The current room is not big enough for the map and parts of it are on slider boards that have to be pushed and pulled into place. The new center has it all on one wall.
Instead of pegs and flags, it consists of more than 9,000 plastic tiles that can be lifted out with suction cups, marked and popped back into place.
The room is equipped with two large monitors where staff can view information about the system or tune in to news coverage during storms.
The new building also contains a larger “storm room,” where staff gather to share information when wind and rain cause widespread outages. In addition, a much larger room is set aside for the PUD’s computer servers than in the current building.
The center is built to modern seismic standards and with energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling, creating greater capacity for the file servers.
“Triple security” will be in effect at the new building, in accordance with federal standards that have been written and will soon be mandatory for utilities, Heimgartner said.