Friday, January 19, 2018

From thankful residents to curious critters, crews see a lot during first week in Puerto Rico

As our crews wrap up their first week on the ground in Puerto Rico, their hard work is being rewarded by the grateful residents of the island. Many residents are coming out of their homes to greet our workers and shake their hands. One resident, a World War II veteran, even delivered cold water and cookies to our crews.                               
Employee Tom Guetzke thanks a resident
who brought crews cookies and cold water.
Restoring power has been an emotional experience for both the residents and crews. “Our crews are really determined to get the locals’ lights on,” said Bruce Sasman, crew supervisor.

Some people have been without power for more than three months since Hurricane Maria hit the island. Current estimates suggest more than 40 percent of residents are still in the dark.

“Even with all the challenges of tight spaces and jungle-type vegetation, the crews have gotten to be very innovative,” said Sasman. Crews have navigated the island’s narrow streets and rugged terrain and come upon challenges that they have never seen before, like navigating close encounters with iguanas at the top of power poles.
Employee Kevin Kosnicki works around an iguana.
Kevin Fletcher, president of our Wisconsin utilities, said of our crews, “I’m extremely proud of our crews and I think they are going to do a tremendous job. They are going to set a standard. Our folks are known for doing high-quality work from a safety and professional standpoint, and I know they will stand out among the other gentlemen and ladies who are down there as well.”

Puerto Rico residents have been taking to our social media pages to express their thanks:

We Energies employees inspire girls in math and science

At this year’s annual Girls Empowered by Math and Science (GEMS) Conference at UW-Parkside, keynote speaker and NASA engineer Florence Tan spoke to the importance of gravity assists – ways scientists further propel a craft along its trajectory in space missions. She explained to the more than 200 Racine-area middle school girls in attendance that this can be a metaphor for life; that their teachers, parents, inspirations and even challenges act as “gravity assists” along the trajectory of their aspirations and careers, helping them to move forward.

Tan’s words inspired students to take on a day of workshops with topics ranging from forensic science to coding to the various STEM careers available in the energy industry. Along with other organizations, We Energies employees hosted workshops in which students viewed food demonstrations of everyday science, built and designed bridges, made pencils out of graphite and clay, and built their own batteries from household objects.

Alison Castronovo and Melissa Schultz, We Energies employees in the environmental department, hosted the “Penny Power” workshop. They helped students construct batteries out of pennies, washers and mounting board soaked in a water, salt and vinegar solution to familiarize the students with current electricity. They also led an experiment with static electricity that involved balloons, wool and cereal.

Students used household objects to explore how electricity works.

“This year, we decided to highlight what electricity is, how it is made and distributed, and how it can be stored,” said Castronovo, who has led a workshop at the conference for the past three of its five years. She values this work because of the importance of encouraging women in her field. “I recently read that the energy industry is among the least gender-diverse industries in the United States. It’s important for our company to support girls’ involvement in math and science education and potentially spark an interest in our field to help close that gap.”

Environmental Engineer Alison Castronovo taught students about electricity.
Castronovo echoed Tan’s statements as her trajectory to being an environmental engineer had gravity assists of its own. She credits her father who was a chemistry teacher, her sixth-grade teacher and an internship that provided her with real-world energy company experience with helping her solidify her decision to work in the energy sector on environmental projects.

And now, Castronovo is paying it forward by taking her role as a gravity assist in the girls’ journey seriously. “The GEMS Conference gives us an opportunity to interface with the middle school girls, encourage them to stay engaged in math and science and to be positive role models,” she said.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An irruption of owls leads to rescue, rehabilitation, release

In late November, a snowy owl was found in the parking lot at our headquarters in downtown Milwaukee. A month and a half later, the owl was released in Port Washington thanks to efforts of the Wisconsin Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. 

The owl, named Iglaak (an Inuit word meaning “traveler” or “visitor”) by the Wisconsin Humane Society, was treated for parasites, malnourishment and a fractured toe then released into the wild by Scott Diehl, wildlife director at the Wisconsin Humane Society.

“I tossed Iglaak into the air and let him go,” Diehl said. “He took off like a champ, flew and flew then soared and then had a nice landing out in the field.”

Scott Diehl, wildlife director at the Wisconsin Humane Society, prepares to release Iglaak the snowy owl in Port Washington. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Humane Society)
Diehl added that while it was a bit chilly for the few spectators and media crews, the temperature was perfect for Iglaak. “It’s never too cold to release a snowy owl,” he said.

Diehl and his team choose the date and location for these types of releases carefully, factoring in the bird’s health, weather and ideal habitat for the release to be successful. The site in Port Washington, the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, is a large expanse of open space with tundra-like features and gave Iglaak access to the shoreline for optimal waterfowl hunting.

Many snowy owls have been spotted in Wisconsin and across the Northeast and Midwest this winter. This phenomenon of increased snowy owl sightings is called an irruption. During an irruption, more owls fly farther south than normal. Most of the owls are juveniles in search of food and habitat.

In November, We Energies employees found Iglaak in a company 
parking lot and contacted the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s really fascinating what’s occurring,” said Mike Grisar, principal environmental consultant for We Energies. “Just before the new year, there were over 200 individual snowies sighted in Wisconsin. We know this because of surveys conducted by Project Snowstorm that include putting transmitters on and tagging the birds. To have one show up on our doorstep, in our parking lot, was really an exciting day.”

Grisar recalls when snowy owl sightings were rare. He notes that people who research snowy owls in depth don’t yet know why these irruptions occur, but speculations include an increase in population, or the result of laws that make it illegal to kill birds of prey.

Through his work, Diehl has seen four snowy owls this year, including Iglaak, who is the only one to survive.

“The effort to rehabilitate any creature is a community effort,” Diehl said. “It starts with those who report the animal, the volunteers who transport it, and the people and organizations who support our work and help us follow through on the original compassion of saving the bird.”

To learn more about snowy owls, visit Project Snowstorm.

To learn more about the Wisconsin Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, visit them on Facebook.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Wisconsin utility crews to depart for Puerto Rico Jan. 13

Three months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, more than 40 percent of residents are still in the dark. Thousands of power restoration workers from U.S. energy companies are answering the island’s need for assistance, including about 35 We Energies and 25 Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) employees. The two companies will work together to respond to the widespread loss of power in Puerto Rico. They depart for an estimated six-week assignment in the San Juan area this Saturday, Jan. 13, from General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.

Supervisors from We Energies and WPS already have made the trip to the island and are preparing for crews to arrive. Vehicles and equipment from both companies were sent by barge earlier this month. Crews plan to work 12- to 16-hour days restoring power to the island.

While they face uncertainty, unfamiliar conditions and terrain, and devastation of infrastructure like they’ve never seen, the employees are excited to answer the call to service.
We Energies and WPS supervisors departed for Puerto Rico from Milwaukee on Jan. 9. 

 “An opportunity like this – to go to an island and help restore power – has never come up before,” said Craig Kahoun, operations manager – WPS, in an interview with a Green Bay news station.

While crews from We Energies and WPS responded to Hurricane Irma in Florida and Georgia last year and to other hurricanes in years past, this is the first time the companies have performed restoration efforts outside of the continental U.S.

Peter Klafka, operations supervisor – We Energies, was interviewed by a Milwaukee news station and highlighted the importance of safety while on this trip. “There’re going to be a lot of hazardous conditions we’re going to encounter down there. The crews’ safety is the most important and the biggest challenge we’re going to have to face,” he said. 

“Everything we’ll work on there – it’s devastated,” Kahoun said. “So we’re going to have a lot of reconstruction.” The hurricane caused extensive damage to electric infrastructure in Puerto Rico. Additionally, accessing areas in need of restoration is further complicated by the islands narrow streets and rugged terrain.

The crews are willing to take on all of these challenges. Chris Vanlaarhoven, a We Energies lead line mechanic in Iron Mountain, is ready to start improving conditions for the people of Puerto Rico: “It’s a good feeling on our part, and I’m sure the people will be very happy down there once we turn the power back on for them.”

Friday, January 5, 2018

Marquette University’s GasDay program helps us deliver natural gas efficiently

A cold front moves down from Canada, and heaters start humming. A holiday comes along, and businesses shut down. Many different factors can influence natural gas use on any given day. To provide you, our customers, with reliable and cost-effective service, we depend on accurate forecasts of natural gas demand.

Those forecasts are made with the help of software developed by researchers and engineers at Marquette University. Director Ronald Brown launched Marquette’s GasDay program in 1993. We Energies was one of the first companies to test the lab’s models. Now approximately 35 natural gas companies rely on GasDay software nationwide, and our natural gas controllers use it to analyze demand and guide natural gas flow on a daily basis.

The software evaluates weather and market data to provide a “point forecast,” a single number representing how much natural gas customers will need. In 2016, natural gas controllers asked the GasDay researchers if they could provide even more information. It would be helpful to see the total range of possibilities in addition to the most likely forecast.

Saber defends his Ph.D. dissertation at the GasDay Lab. 
That’s where Mohammad Saber stepped in. The doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering was inspired to make probabilistic forecasting possible for GasDay. Probabilistic forecasting incorporates uncertainty in its results: How likely is it that demand will fall in this range versus that one?

This method is common in some fields, such as finance, but rarely has been used in the energy industry due to its complexity. Saber knew that if GasDay could show probabilistic results, it would present a more complete view of the risks that could lead to over- or under-supply, helping natural gas companies cut down on costs.

“It’s interesting – in everyday life, we think in probabilistic forecasting,” Saber said. “Maybe you’re thinking about how long it will take to get home from work. You don’t have any point forecasting in mind. If the traffic is heavy, you’ll leave earlier.”

But modeling probability isn’t so intuitive. When Saber chose this topic for his Ph.D. dissertation, he set out to develop not only new ways of generating probabilistic forecasts for the energy industry, but also new methods of evaluating and communicating those forecasts. He began implementing his research at the GasDay Laboratory in early 2017, and he successfully defended his dissertation in September. The next step? Incorporating it into the software we use.
Example of a probabilistic forecast predicting
the amount of natural gas needed on an hourly basis.

Saber’s research soon may support our natural gas controllers as they make cost-effective choices and plan for the uncertainties ahead. It is just one example of the ways the GasDay Lab learns from and gives back to its customers.

“We love working with our local utilities,” said Tom Quinn, GasDay business director.

We’re glad to have GasDay predictions on our side this winter – helping us provide you with reliable and affordable natural gas service.