REPAIR work to Shetland’s damaged electricity network is likely to be ongoing for the first few months of the year as the condition of powerlines continue to be checked by helicopters patrols.
Meanwhile, SSEN Distribution has confirmed that 2,700 households, mainly in the west of Shetland, will start receiving their statutory compensation cheques next week, totalling around £660,000.
More than 5,000 households and businesses lost power, some for up to six days, when poles snapped like matchsticks as tonnes of heavy wet snow followed by icing brought down powerlines last month.
A major repair operation sprang into action as the extent of the damage became apparent, with up to 170 ‘hydro men’, some from afar as Kent, working on the ground to get islanders reconnected.
SSEN Distribution’s operations manager in Shetland, George Priest, said the company had received no prior warning from forecasters as to the expected conditions, adding that this type of ‘weather event’ was notoriously difficult to see coming.
“We knew it was not going to be brilliant weather, but nothing like what was actually coming in,” he said as he recalled events that started unfolding in the afternoon of 12 December.
“We put out the call for help that Monday afternoon, and the first thing I asked for was a helicopter to get people around quickly and to see what was going on with the network.”
The damage can be described as unprecedented without any exaggeration. Powerlines had tumbled like dominos under the sheer weight of ice that had frozen solid on the lines.
Priest said engineers had to deal with up to 1.2 tonnes of ice on a single line between two poles, adding that he had to go back to the 1980s, when he was a trainee at what was then Hydro Electric, to recall similarly severe conditions.
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And he praised the local community for pulling together and looking after each other while the electricity network operator was working flat out to get as much support to Shetland as necessary.
“We got a lot of help locally, the SIC offered the Islesburgh youth hostel which we used, the Sella Ness facility offered accommodation which we used, and some hotels opened up for us,” Priest told Shetland News.
“NorthLink was outstanding, they put in an unscheduled call to Kirkwall on Monday night to pick up equipment and some boys who were working in Orkney. All the local businesses really dug deep to help.”
SSEN was able to restore power to some areas such as parts of Brae later the same day, but the extent of the damage to the network in the south of Yell, in Whalsay, in Graven, Firth and particularly in the Westside required a response Shetland had not seen since the big snowstorm of Christmas 1995.
“The first guys were arriving on Tuesday and by 9.30 that morning everybody had a job to get on with.”
Between Monday and the following Sunday when the final customers were reconnected the repair teams realigned or replaced 100 poles and restrung 133 spans of power lines.
Speaking while visiting ongoing repair work at Stromfirth on Tuesday afternoon, Priest said the company had still 15 extra men from the mainland deployed to support the local teams.
“It will be pretty intensive this month, but it will be carrying on for the next two to three months,” he added.
“The patrols will give us a really a good idea by the end of the week of what is needed. That information is being fed back to the teams and is used for the work the following day.”
Priest said that despite the widespread damage experienced in December’s ‘weather event’ the local electricity network was strong and could deal with most of what the weather would throw at it.
Putting cables underground rather than overhead would not be a viable option as this would be ten times as expensive, he said.
“The network in Shetland is designed and built differently compared to the mainland because of wind and salt,” he said.
“The network is stronger and more resilient, and local knowledge plays a huge part in the way we design the network, looking at previous faults and taking steps to minimise the risk of future faults.”
Preparing the network of just over 1,000 kilometres of overhead high voltage lines – equating to around 14,000 poles – for future weather events was part of an ongoing planning process, he said.
Meanwhile, SSEN has released some more information about compensation payments the company is required to make when unable to reconnect people within 48 hours.
A spokesperson for the company said: “Following the necessary fault validation checks, we’ve sought to issue statutory compensation payments as quickly as possible, working with the Royal Mail in Shetland.
“From 14 January, over 2,700 compensation cheques (totalling around £660,000) will be delivered to all eligible customers who were off supply for 48 hours or more. The payment increases depending on the length of time without power.”
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