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Conquering the Waccamaw River

Through hurricanes and floods, Santee Cooper employees persevered for customers and the environment.

Conquering the Waccamaw River

On a late-summer Tuesday in September, a light breeze wound through the treetops while birds chirped delightful melodies. The sun was shining, warm and bright, but the beauty of the day stood in direct contrast with the menacing and dangerous threat that was coming. All eyes along the South Carolina coast were on Hurricane Florence as it tore its way across the Atlantic. A massive and formidable storm, the hurricane blanketed 500 miles with sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. The possibilities were terrifying as the Category 4 storm headed right for us.

Evacuations were ordered for the entire coast of the Carolinas, and the waiting began. Four very long, drawn-out days left tensions and anticipation levels high. The storm weakened, relieving some anxieties, but its approach was painfully slow. It was fortunate that the winds weren't as strong as predicted. It was unfortunate that once the storm finally made landfall, it hovered over the region, dropping more than 23 inches of rain in some parts of Horry County. It flooded cities to our north and soon enough, that water would be flooding us too.

Hurricane Florence wasn't as powerful as some of our past storms. But in many ways, it was more devastating.

In the week leading up to the storm, Santee Cooper's Corporate Incident Management Team (CIMT) activated and put a plan in place. CIMT is directed by Lead Incident Commander Ed Bodie and includes participation from just about every department at Santee Cooper.

"The planning was tremendous, with the hurricane and the flood causing everyone involved to continuously think of any potential obstacles that could stop the mission," said Bodie. "We had to have additional backup and contingency plans in place also. Next came the challenges of executing the plans and making changes as required, often in short timeframes, keeping us on our toes and ready for anything."

Mutual aid agreements were executed so extra crews were on standby to cut trees and restore power as quickly as possible. Hotels were booked for line crews and emergency teams, and meals were set to keep them all fed.

Neil James, Santee Cooper's distribution operations manager, was a big part of the effort. Working for Santee Cooper for 33 years, he's been tested by at least 25 storms.

"No storm is the same and each present their fair share of difficulties, but having experience where everyone knows what to do does help," said James.

Hurricane Florence hit on Saturday, Sept. 15, with wind speeds of 70 miles per hour.

Hurricane Florence took out 50,310 retail customers on Santee Cooper's power grid.

Distribution crews were out restoring power throughout the storm except for a short time that Sunday when wind speeds exceeded 35 mph, too strong to operate a bucket truck.

Hard work paid off, and all customers who could receive power were back on by Monday night.

"Everyone is a vital part of our plan and they do an amazing job. Our linemen play a key role because they are frontline employees who must work in the rain, wind, and just about every adverse condition you can imagine, and they always impress me with their professional workmanship and tenacity to work until the last customer's power is restored. The greater the challenge, the harder they work," said James.

The winds also took out several transmission lines, including some in swampy areas, which makes restoration pretty tough. Those transmission lines feed electricity not only to Santee Cooper's substations, but also to our neighboring cooperatives and municipal customers.

"A large majority of our transmission lines travel through heavily wooded areas and across wetlands such as rivers, swamps and marshes," said Mark Marsh, transmission lines supervisor. "All-terrain equipment is essential for accessing transmission rights-of-way, especially following a major storm. It would've taken several days to restore the transmission system after Florence if it had not been for the specialized equipment and skilled workforce."

Even though the hurricane's impacts on power delivery was resolved relatively quickly, the threat was far from over.

CIMT moved operations to the previously closed Conway Retail Office. The problem: the Grainger ash ponds, which were nearly excavated, needed shoring up in the face of record flooding on the adjacent Waccamaw River, as floodwaters from Florence's meander through North Carolina made their way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Engineers planned around two needs: to protect the integrity of the earthen dikes surrounding the ponds, and to prevent the small amount of ash remaining in Ash Pond 2 from migrating into the Waccamaw if that pond flooded.

"These structures have never, in their entire lifetime, experienced this type of event," said Mark Carter, manager of construction and transportation services. Carter and his group are responsible for the integrity of Santee Cooper's dams and dikes. "There were a lot of unknowns. I like to remind people, when you're dealing with an earthen embankment, you're not dealing with homogenous, man-made materials like steel. You know what's in steel. In the ground, in soil, there are deficiencies you can't see."

What ultimately emerged: a multi-pronged plan to protect the integrity of the dikes and prevent overtopping of Ash Pond 2, which still had about 200,000 tons of ash inside. It involved pumping water into the ponds to stabilize the dikes against the rising river, installing products to contain particles if needed, sampling the river water to determine if an ash breach occurred - and, ultimately, raising the height of the Ash Pond 2 dike.

Carter is a member of CIMT and went through a similar, but less extreme, exercise with the Waccamaw flooding after Hurricane Matthew. From that experience, Santee Cooper learned to pump water into the ponds to equalize pressure and protect the dikes as the water rose. But this time around, the water was expected to crest higher than the top of the dikes. The team assembled more than 50 portable pumps, additional pieces of heavy equipment, rock, sandbags and other materials for use as needed. There were also several hundred tons of rock already bagged in 1.5-ton sacks, which could be lifted into place by a heavy-lift helicopter stationed nearby to address any potential breaches in the dike. And they installed silt fencing and floating containment boom to restrict particles if needed.

As the river forecasts kept coming, though, it became clear that none of this would prevent overtopping if the Waccamaw came anywhere close to its projected crest. Ash Pond 1 could withstand an overtopping without any meaningful environmental impact, but Ash Pond 2 still had about 200,000 tons of ash inside. The team needed to make that dike taller, and fast. Santee Cooper had used an AquaDam inside the ash pond during Matthew, to wall off the ash from any floodwaters. But it was too wide to fit on top of the dike, which is where we needed reinforcement this time. After an intense stretch of internal discussions and calls with the supplier, Carter and a group of engineers decided a thinner AquaDam might do the trick and if so, would add about 30 inches to the height of the dike around Ash Pond 2.

"It was a collective decision, through a series of a couple of meetings, that all occurred in one day," said Carter. "Late that evening, we pulled the trigger on it."

Aided by a police escort all the way from Louisiana to Conway, the AquaDam arrived the next evening.

"I was standing at the gate into Ash Pond 2 close to the barges when it arrived at the main entrance by the guard shack. There were several police escorts accompanying the truck, which had been running nonstop from Louisiana in order to arrive at our site," said Todd Crawford, senior engineer. "All of the escorts were running their lights and were positioned in front and behind the truck. It was definitely a site to see."

Time was tight. With the help of the S.C. National Guard, crews worked around the clock the get the AquaDam installed. It wasn't easy, but they got it installed with hours to spare.

Meanwhile, environmental management crews put out more than 1,100 feet of containment boom around the ponds, as an additional step to filter any particles should they rise to the surface of the water pumped into the ponds. In areas that were difficult to access, the boom was hauled by pickup truck and deployed by hand, or pulled by Santee Cooper or National Guard boats through a canal. A few sections were even deployed by helicopter to avoid any contact with the AquaDam once it was deployed.

"Deployment of the boom was certainly a tough job, both logistically and physically," said Dom Ciccolella, generation technical services superintendent. "I am still impressed that we were able to deploy the amount of boom that we did in such short time. I would estimate that close to 50 people were involved in this effort in some way."

Ciccolella left his wife and two young daughters at home to work in Conway for several weeks, a story common to many employees deployed to the site.

"It was definitely difficult being away from home during the flood response, especially for my wife who had to handle the girls by herself while I was away," Ciccolella added.

Other crews kept the pumps going, delivering water into both 40-acre ponds to stay within feet of the height of the rising Waccamaw River at all times. The effort required constant monitoring and adjustments, adding pumps or taking them offline to track the river's ascent.

"The amazing thing is I think we had 37 pumps pumping at one time," said Carter. "We had pumps stationed wherever we could find to put them to keep with the river. In the early stages of the river rise, it was a very steep incline and rising quickly."

Cranes lifted pumps onto barges as the water flooded the land. Trucks were replaced by boats. Drone flights kept an eye on the dikes when ground inspections became impossible. A heavy lift helicopter remained on standby to place sandbags if needed.

Water sampling continued as the river rose, and Santee Cooper worked closely with DHEC on a testing plan to use in case of a breach. Downstream water suppliers were notified of the plans as well.

On Sept. 22, the Waccamaw River started overtopping Pond 1, as expected. There wasn't much concern there, because Santee Cooper had already excavated nearly all the ash out of that pond, and because of work already done to stabilize the dike. But at that point, the river was above Hurricane Matthew level at 17.84 feet, and expected to crest at 22 feet. Even with the added height of the AquaDam, Pond 2 was still in danger of overtopping. Santee Cooper crews continued monitoring water samples, river levels and the dikes, watching the muddy water inch its way up the side of the AquaDam, as they intently waited for the river to crest.

On Sept. 26, NOAA announced the Waccamaw River had crested in Conway at 21.2 feet. Water came within inches of the top of the AquaDam on Ash Pond 2, but did not overtop it. The AquaDam held its ground and did not succumb to floodwaters.

"It was quite a relief, quite a relief," said Carter. "You know there were other forecasts that were calling for it to be, I want to say, three feet higher... so it was quite a relief to see that the NOAA forecasts were in fact an accurate forecast and the river had crested."

There was definitely relief among the employees, but no cheers or high fives. While water began to subside, Santee Cooper's attention to the ash ponds did not. Crews continued to inspect the dikes as the water receded and to sample the water. There was no sign of a breach. Employees also began the equally important process of pumping the water out of the ponds and back into the Waccamaw River. As an extra precaution, Santee Cooper ordered silt curtain that was placed by the helicopter near the pumps to catch anything coming into them. At DHEC's request, we also tested water coming directly from the pumps and downstream in the river, and all results were well within permitted limits. Santee Cooper continued to pump water out of the ponds until Oct. 31.

"I have 30 years here at Santee Cooper, have responded to many events of various sizes and scales, but it was just, to me, it was just amazing the way people came together and performed as a team and were just unabated by focusing on this goal," Carter said. "We were doing everything we could to conquer the Waccamaw River."

Reduce The Use programs save customers more than $250 million since 2008 — 209 gigawatt-hour goal reached two years early

Energy AuditMONCKS CORNER, S.C. — Santee Cooper energy-efficiency programs are saving customers 209 gigawatt hours a year, an energy savings goal the utility reached two years ahead of its 2020 target. Even better, these programs have saved customers more than $250 million since their launch in 2008.

Santee Cooper's Reduce The Use programs have helped more than 73,000 of its 185,000 residential and commercial direct-service customers save energy and money. The 2018 annual energy savings is enough to power the needs of more than 16,500 average residential customers.

Through Reduce The Use, Santee Cooper offers customers rebates for a variety of energy efficiency improvements, from smart thermostats for their homes to lighting controls for their businesses. It also offers the Smart Energy Loan program, a low-interest loan that helps residential customers make upgrades such as high-efficiency electric heat pumps, duct replacements and heat pump water heaters.

"Santee Cooper's ability to achieve our 2020 goal in 2018 shows the strength of the energy efficiency programs we have developed over the years," said Jim Brogdon, interim president and CEO. "Our conservation and energy efficiency team has worked hard to promote these programs with our customers, with significant results in energy and cost savings."

When it was introduced, Reduce The Use was a first-of-its-kind energy efficiency approach in South Carolina. Santee Cooper has been the state's leader in both energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, providing renewable Green Power to meet customer needs since 2001.

Santee Cooper will continue helping customers Reduce The Use for the next two years, while also establishing a new 2030 plan with additional energy-efficiency and beneficial-electrification programs.

Watch: 2020 Reduce The Use Goal Reached

Santee Cooper expands economic development programs


Santee Cooper extended and expanded programs in 2018 that drive economic development efforts across South Carolina.

In June, the Board of Directors approved the extension of the utility's Economic Development Revolving Loan Program through Dec. 31, 2020. Santee Cooper's economic development loan program was established in 2012 and offers loans of $500,000 to $5 million to local governments and nonprofit economic development organizations served by Santee Cooper or the state's electric cooperatives. The loans can be used for land acquisition, infrastructure improvements or buildings, and the loan program allows the localities and nonprofit economic development organizations to better compete for new or expanded industrial or commercial development.

"Santee Cooper has a responsibility to promote economic development and throughout our history, we've been a leader in offering initiatives that attract major industries," said Pamela Williams, Santee Cooper's vice president of corporate services. "By providing financing for critical land, speculative buildings and infrastructure, we are helping South Carolina successfully compete for advanced manufacturing and the good jobs that come with it."

Santee Cooper has loaned localities, electric cooperatives and other nonprofit economic development organizations more than $91 million for economic development to 29 entities. Projects helped include:

  • Inland Port Dillon, the South Carolina Ports newest facility, expected to convert 45,000 container movements from truck to rail in its first year and already created 1,000 jobs
  • Volvo Car USA's Training Center, located next to Volvo's first U.S. automotive manufacturing facility, which represents an initial investment of $500 million and 2,000 jobs in Berkeley County
  • Wyman-Gordon, a manufacturer of large titanium and super alloy forgings for the aerospace and power generation markets, with an investment of $115 million and 400 jobs in Dillon County
  • Sigmatex, a world leader in the manufacturing of carbon fiber textiles, with an investment of $12 million in Orangeburg County and 50 jobs
  • Coca-Cola Consolidated Sales and Distribution Center, with an investment of $5 million in Jasper County and 20 jobs

Then in December, Santee Cooper's Board approved an extension through 2020 of the utility's successful site readiness grant programs for electric cooperatives, other wholesale customers and direct retail customers. The Board also approved a new closing fund for its municipal wholesale and direct retail customers.

Working with the South Carolina Power Team, Santee Cooper established the site readiness grant program funds in 2014 to help produce market-ready sites that would increase South Carolina's ability to recruit and retain industry. Since 2014, the wholesale grant funds have supported projects with capital investment totaling $565.8 million and 2,290 jobs.

A combined $8.5 million a year in grants will be available to eligible projects through the Power Team Site Readiness Fund (which will be funded in part by the electric cooperatives), the Municipal Site Readiness Fund and the new closing fund for Santee Cooper's retail & wholesale municipal service customers. The site readiness grants are available to help acquire or improve industrial buildings, sites and other economic development assets. The closing fund is modeled after a similar grant program available in electric cooperative territory and would allow projects to seek funding in Santee Cooper's direct retail or wholesale municipal service territory.

Santee Cooper's site readiness grants are supported by the South Carolina Department of Commerce and the South Carolina Power Team and complement those organizations' statewide economic development efforts as well.

"These grant programs have a very successful track record in attracting new capital investment and creating jobs," Williams said. "We are pleased to extend these site readiness programs, and to introduce the new program."