Businesses keep back-up plans ready 10 years after 2003 blackout

Atlas Oil in Taylor works with businesses, critical agencies to develop plans should there be another major blackout

Bob Kenyon remembers vividly the day the lights went out in 2003.   It would be the start of a work shift that continued for about 39 hours.

"It was pretty crazy. I remember all of the street lights going out and driving by some of our customer gas stations and there is no power on canopy lights at seven o'clock at night," said Bob Kenyon.

Kenyon, executive vice president of sales and development for Atlas Oil Company in Taylor, said their facility was one of the few places that had power because of its back up generation system.  He said word quickly spread that they had power and fuel to deliver.

The company's logistics center was working around the clock taking calls from businesses and other critical agencies wanting fuel to get their lights back on until power was restored.

"It was for retail gas stations. It was for commercial businesses. It was for backup emergency generators. It was for underground storage tanks in hospitals," said Kenyon.  "I worked I think about 39 straight hours before I actually put my head on the pillow."

During the 2003 Blackout, 50 million people across eight states and in Canada found themselves without power. Just two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, initially many people feared the worst.     However terrorism was not the cause of the blackout, it was trees. Trees came into contact with several transmission lines operated by an Akron, Ohio company.   The investigation into the blackout revealed the response, the tools used to monitor the outage and the communication among all parties involved were to blame for the wide-spread power loss.

It wasn't just a loss of power, the water supply was affected too. Detroit Metro Airport also was one of the first to shut down.

Ten years later, Kenyon said the blackout taught him how crucial it is to have a back up plan when the lights go out.

"Just having back up power generation isn't enough. You need to know how often when that thing goes on and its full bore how much fuel is it going to burn through on a per hour basis what kind of keep fuel agreement do you need to put in place in order to continue to sustain that power," Kenyon said.

Atlas Oil works with hospitals and schools, data centers and manufacturing facilities to create emergency plans to deal with power outages.

"So we sit down with a customer and say, 'Okay, lets take a look at your history. Lets take a look at how power outages or critical events that have taken place how have they impacted your world and how  long did they last and how much surety of supply do you need right? Is it one day? Is it seven days? Is it a month? What do you need?' And then we put together a program where we can guarantee them that offer," Kenyon said.

Todd Pardon works for CBRE, the company that manages the Renaissance Center in Detroit.   It is his job is to keep the five and a half million square foot Renaissance Center running no matter what; especially with so many people coming in and out of it daily.   

"Ninety-plus clients, you know, up to 20,000 visitors on average a day. We host probably 2000 to 3000 events a year in the building, at any given point in time 13 to 15,000 people parking cars here," said Pardon, director for CBRE and general manager of the Renaissance Center.

He said the 2003 blackout should teach everyone to expect systems to go down at some point and have a plan to react once they do.

"The best defense is a great offense," said Pardon.  "We have redundant systems, we have emergent systems and we have action plans for each of those contingencies and for how to handle them."

Pardon said they have generators that can run for two days before they need companies like Atlas Oil to refuel them.    That's just to keep safety measures like lighting, elevators, fire systems and smoke detectors operating.   They have additional generators for clients doing business in the Ren Cen and a plan to take other measures if there is a prolonged outage.

"We can bring in outside generators and line them up in certain areas of the complex and provide additional capacity in the building, 18 wheel truck type," said Pardon.

"We also have to fuel those, so whether we have the tanks in the ground, or if we have to bring in tankers to fill those trucks, having that resource line is imperative," said Pardon about relationships he has with other businesses like Atlas Oil.

Pardon said the blackout was a strong reminder to check the emergency plan and check it often.   His team meets monthly to review their plans.  They also test sections of the building by shutting down the power to see what could happen.   Pardon said the stakes are high if they cannot keep operating during a power outage.

"If you think of the amount of commerce that is directly attributable to this complex, it's millions a second. Maybe more than that," said Pardon.