Irene's Outages Put Backup Power to the Test ~

Hurricane Irene had been demoted to a tropical storm by the time it swept over Long Island and Connecticut in the last week of August. But the storm’s winds were still strong enough to knock down trees and knock out power to wide areas of New England and New York. In coastal Connecticut, that meant a busy few weeks for Kinsley Power Systems, an on-site power generation company based in East Granby, Conn., with operations throughout the region. Kinsley personnel had helped Coastal Contractor with information for an article about residential emergency backup power generators years ago, in September of 2007 (“Staff Report: Blackout Power Solutions”). So we decided to call David Kinsley, the company CEO, for a report about the aftermath of Irene. “I’ve had crews out pretty much around the clock since last Friday,” Kinsley said on August 31. “Even before the storm we had customers who were wanting to have their units maintained and make sure they’re up to snuff before the storm hit. And we actually had customers reserving a technician — they basically wanted them just to babysit units over the weekend, prior to the storm. These were some of the ones who had more forethought than others.” In Kinsley’s market area, Irene was a powerful blow. “Oftentimes the media will hype up a storm, and then it will fail to deliver,” he says. “But I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve been at the company a long time now — about 15 years. We had Y2K, we had the ‘98 ice storm, we had the ‘02 blackout, and none of those compare to what we’ve experienced with Irene. The level of outages far exceeded Gloria [in 1985]. The shore is still reeling from this.” (At the time of the interview, 44% of Connecticut Light & Power customers were still without power.) “The governor said there were more than 2,000 poles down. They’re having to reconstruct the whole infrastructure. And meanwhile, we’re taking care of customers.” “We’re fortunate because as one of the largest generator and service companies in the Northeast, we’re able to pull in technicians from other parts of the region,” Kinsley went on. “In fact, we’ve been able to pick up some service contracts from our competitors, because they haven’t been able to respond, just because they are more local. And we’re still getting lots of service calls even today, several days after the storm. From a dispatch standpoint, it has been all hands on deck. Our operations manager has become a dispatcher, and I’ve been doing rentals. Our rental volume has been probably four times what a record month is, during the Irene response. As soon as a unit comes off rent, we have a waiting list of about 50 different customers that we’ve been sending units back out to.” With demand out-stripping supply, Kinsley and his company are in the role of making decisions about who gets the next free generator, or the next free service technician. “Life safety comes first,” says Kinsley. “That has always been our M.O. here. So if there’s a nursing home, or a hospital that’s down, they get prioritized. Then we just have to look at the individual story, and whether it’s a long-term customer, a larger customer, or whether it’s a mission-critical function where there’s going to be a major impact on a broad level, and then those get prioritized as well. We had a beauty salon call us up, and I have to say that they were further down the list.” The storm put Kinsley’s generators to the test as well, and he said, “By and large, our units are proving to be reliable. I mean, that’s why people hire us. But they’re mechanical systems, though, so certainly some have failed. But we get them up and running again. There have been no major failure stories. And we’ve been able to respond to every call within 24 hours.” A storm like Irene brings a rush of business to companies like Kinsley Power Systems. But how have the previous few years been, with the economy slow and no big storms in recent memory motivating people to consider backup power? Surprisingly, Kinsley says that business has been strong, even in the down economy. “It’s of the proliferation of information technology,” he says. “People are more and more dependent on electronica. Whether you’re working in a home office, and without your laptop you’re out of business; or even just charging your cell phone, and you need to have juice for that; people have cable systems, and they want to watch TV — just the general movement in our culture toward having more electronic gadgets has left them more dependent on electricity. So as a result, frankly, we’ve weathered the economic crisis quite well. We had close to a record year last year. We’ve been experiencing solid growth.”