SSE’s record breaking efforts for Kintyre and Arran

All households in Kintyre and Arran were reconnected to network supply by close of play on Thursday 28th March, with SSE engineers using wooden poles to bypass the collapsed towers – which totalled ten between Inveraray in Mid Argyll  and Carradale in Kintyre.

There is now time to sit back and absorb the scale of the operation SSE mustered and grew to respond to the week long emergency.

This was nothing less than a military exercise, with 20,000 households without power at the worst of it; with 450 engineers, linesmen, switchers and supervisors brought in from all over the UK mainland to do the field work; and with something like 100 support staff working on logistics, co-ordination and resourcing.

All these staff had to be accommodated, fed, moved and kept supplied with all of the equipment, transports and materials they needed.

SSE chartered no fewer than six helicopters to overfly this expansive area for sheer speed of network fault finding when road access was impossible. These aircraft also flew in the heavy replacement poles and offered assistance, where possible, to farmers in getting food to trapped livestock.

The company chartered CalMac’s Islay Ferry, the MV Hebridean Isles, for two successive days, seeing it make two passages south from Kennacraig, round the Mull of Kintyre and up into Campbeltown Loch, delivering generators, vehicles, mobile catering units and staff [and some supermarket food trucks] direct to the harbour. One of the CalMac inshore ferries out of Tarbert was also taken temporarily out of  normal service and made supply runs to Arran.

The company says that it has recorded two British mainland firsts in the course of its response to this situation:

  • the extent both of the damage and the consequent repairs to the steel transmission towers ‘has been unprecedented on the GB transmission network’.
  • no other mobilisation of generator power has been done at this scale before, ‘connecting the equivalent of two small power stations’.

The logistics involved included:

  • the supply of 350 wood poles and 50 pole mounted transformers which had to be replaced;
  • the serving of 15,000 home-made hot meals and over 30,000 hot drinks.

All of this took place in conditions which, until they improved with site access possible on 26th March, saw engineers contending with blizzards and snow drifts of up to 3m deep.

Throughout the entire operation, not one single member of SSE staff was injured – which says a lot about the safety standards obtaining.

Then, with this necessarily being a multi-agency operation, there was all of the liason and cooordination between the partners in the incident response. These included the emergency services of Police, Fire and Rescue; the NHS; Mountain Rescue teams; Coastguard Rescue teams; the Red Cross; Transport Scotland; and the Scottish Government.

Now, of course, SSE have to rebuild part of the network.

They say that they also ‘will be proactively contacting customers about compensation’ and will be ‘organising roadshows to listen and respond to customer feedback’.

The response from affected communities in Kintyre and on Arran to SSE’s work has been universally warm – and that can reliably be read as a general ‘thank you’ to all of the agencies involved. They will have been ready for the Easter break – except that there are SSE engineers still on standby duty in Kintyre and Arran as a safeguard for the holiday experience for both visitors and residents.

There are lessons to be learned in setting up now both processes and database information:

  • to enshrine which agency takes immediate overall charge of coordinating such an incident; and to make sure that that agency is prepared and schooled in what it has to do;
  • to enable a more methodical contacting of the variously vulnerable next time – where it was a makeshift operation at the start this time;
  • to establish just why locally generated wind power appeared to have no contribution to make; and to remedy that situation. This is likely to be a UK-wide issue with a UKwide solution.
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Related Articles & Comments

  • The RNLI also seems to have been involved, with a lifeboat running around from Brodick to Lochranza one night.
    With regard to the inability of windfarms to feed power into a section of the national grid which has become isolated from the ‘baseload’ power stations, it’s worth comparing Kintyre with the main Scottish islands, some of which (eg Islay) have diesel power stations even though they have an undersea link to the national grid.
    There’s a small hydro electric power station north of Campbeltown, which is fed from the Lussa Loch reservoir and therefore might have been able to provide some power – unlike the modern ‘run of the river’ hydro plants that were presumably suffering from low river levels, if the inaction of the unit at the bridge of Douglas north of Furnace is anything to go by.
    Kintyre is at present at the end of a long and apparently vulnerable main transmission line from north of Inveraray, with the only intermediate grid link at Port Ann via a cable under Loch Fyne from the Cowal network. The new hv link from Hunterston to Crossaig, together with the new uprated line south from there to Carradale, will presumably considerably increase the security of supply to both Kintyre and Arran – when built.
    Did Arran never have it’s own diesel power station?

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    Robert Wakeham March 31, 2013 1:38 pm Reply
    • Glad to see you appear to agree that Lussa Power Station should have been used to supply Kintyre .

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      Islay for ever March 31, 2013 2:10 pm Reply
      • Don’t you think that the engineers at SSE would have used Lussa (2MW?), or local wind turbines for that matter, to supply Campbeltown or the wider area if it was remotely feasible to do so?

        I bet there’s a few SSE engineers reading these stories & their comments and having a good laugh at the pontifications of all the local armchair experts 🙂

        It seems to me that SSE have done an incredible job to restore full network power across such a badly damaged section of line in such short order, and to have made such efforts to try & look after people in the mean time.

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        Tim McIntyre March 31, 2013 11:45 pm Reply
        • You’re absolutely right, but I must admit to sharing Ife’s interest in whether or not Lussa – which is quite close to Campbeltown – might have been able to assist the temporary generators until such time as the national grid connection was restored.

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          Robert Wakeham April 1, 2013 12:16 am Reply
          • Maybe… Lussa is (I think) rated at around 2MW. This is about the same ballpark as a single decent-sized truck-mounted diesel generator, of the type SSE would have used dozens of during the outage. It seems doubtful to me that the extra network switching and balancing effort would have been worth the small saving in diesel over what was, after all, only a 6-day period.

            During the dead of night, 2MW might be just about enough to supply most or all of Kintyre. However, come 8am, its ability to cope would fall to maybe a couple of hundred houses or so. This illustrates the enormous difficulty of trying to balance a fixed maximum output from one source to a demand that varies by several orders of magnitude over a period of minutes to hours, and is the reason why in such cases the engineers have to ‘fragment’ the network into small isolated sections and supply each with its own generator.

            With wind turbines the problem is even greater because the supply varies also, sometimes quickly and unpredictably. Again, the capital cost of providing a control and energy storage system for the wind farms in every small region would be out of all proportion to the benefit, given that it would only come into use in extraordinarily unusual circumstances.

            As for newsroom’s comment: “To establish just why locally generated wind power appeared to have no contribution to make; and to remedy that situation. This is likely to be a UK-wide issue with a UK-wide solution.”

            Well, yes – it is a UK-wide problem, and the UK-wide solution is… the National Grid 🙂

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            Tim McIntyre April 1, 2013 11:33 am
          • It seems to have been the early hours of sunday morning before any temporary generators could be delivered to Campbeltown (via Calmac ferry from Kennacraig) and I was wondering whether the local switching might have allowed Lussa to maintain power to the area of town where elderly folk had to be moved out.

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            Robert Wakeham April 1, 2013 12:27 pm
        • Sorry perhaps I’m missing something here but isn’t that exactly what SSE did? The Council handed out updates on Tuesday with regards the restoration etc and part of that involved hooking up to the Lussa etc?

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          Hughie April 1, 2013 6:49 pm Reply
          • If that’s what happened, it’s good news and suggests that local hydro power might be a much better bet than local wind the event that the national grid supply fails.

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            Robert Wakeham April 1, 2013 7:02 pm
          • There couldn’t have been much of a plan surrounding the use of Lussa Power Station if it took from Friday (Thursday ) in places till Tuesday , 5 or 6 days . My information is that when there was a resident worker at the power station , he lived in the house beside it , he could flick a few switches and the power was restored in a matter of minutes . Given that people have seen much worse snow in the southern end of Kintyre and much worse wind yet far less time without power , it seems to bear out the benefit of “local ” power and the procedures that were in place previously .

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            Islay for ever April 1, 2013 7:46 pm
          • Ife: we live in an age where remote control is the name of the game – but, having once been told that the Nant hydro power plant was operated remotely using the power lines themselves as the signal carrier, I wonder whether the main line failure at Crossaig disrupted any control systems?

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            Robert Wakeham April 1, 2013 8:10 pm
          • I would imagine it’s partly down to economics – the cost of installing, maintaining and manning a system which might only be needed for a couple of days every 25 or 50 years is considerable.

            It’s easy to say with hindsight that this could have been planned for in this way. However, if anyone had said, a couple of weeks back, that every small generation plant in Scotland should be upgraded to supply local demand on a standalone basis, in case of an unusually ferocious winter storm, they would have been dismissed as mad. At a time when the papers contain daily complaints about the price of electricity, we need to be a little realistic about what can be achieved in the way of network reliability in remote areas. It aint 100%, and never has been.

            Better to consider how we can make ourselves as individuals and communities more resilient to short-term loss of mains electricity.

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            Tim McIntyre April 2, 2013 12:23 pm
  • If memory serves, wind turbines generally work best on a large scale, where load can be balanced more easily. On a small scale the fluctuations in both voltage and frequency are likely to be too great to stay within the prescribed ranges for mains power. I don’t know whether suitable capacitors would mitigate this issue, or what the likely costs would be.

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    Arethosemyfeet March 31, 2013 2:42 pm Reply
  • I congratulate SSE on their recovery from this unusual event.

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    HMF March 31, 2013 2:50 pm Reply
  • Many hands make light work. Hats off to every single one of them!

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    Loki March 31, 2013 7:05 pm Reply
  • Well done SSE….

    Congratulations to all concerned….

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    Barmore 2 April 1, 2013 10:20 am Reply
  • Hopefully, there isn’t going to be a next time though…

    Thank you

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    Martin April 1, 2013 1:24 pm Reply
  • Well we had 4 days without power on Bute last winter, and now Arran. At the AGM of the Scottish Islands Fed. on Mull last Sept. we had a work shop/discussion with Community Energy Scotland. One of the suggestions was that local power generation systems should have an option of closing off from the grid if necessary so that the power could be used locally. Sounds very sensible to me.Perhaps micro-generation and storage or PV operated systems should be encouraged. Nano technology or fibre optics could be employed. Just a pity that it’s always the large companies that have to take control of theses options. If there are any engineers out there who could offer feasible suggestions we would like to hear from them.

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    j m April 2, 2013 11:26 am Reply
    • j m – it can be done (see Eigg Electric for inspiration) but it sounds a lot simpler than it is. On a household or small community scale, you can set up a system like this, although it is complex and very expensive. On the scale of a large island like Bute or Arran, realistically the only way you could achieve independence from the grid would be a large (i.e. permanent) diesel or gas turbine power station to provide base generation, and then use your various renewable sources to reduce its fuel consumption.

      If you have, like Eigg, no reasonable prospect of an affordable grid connection, then the capital cost of installing all this equipment is your only option, and at least you get a return as the equipment is in constant use. Where a grid connection does exist however, you are effectively paying a large sum for plant which will be idle for 99.9% of the time, a tough investment call for a very marginal increase in supply reliability.

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      Tim McIntyre April 2, 2013 12:39 pm Reply

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