September 18, 2008

Bad Forecast, Good Intention Delay Some Power Restoration

By Mark Houser

A combination of bad weather forecasts and good-natured cooperation have delayed the restoration of power to some of the thousands left in the dark by high winds.

FirstEnergy Corp. sent crews to Houston to help repair that city's power system after Hurricane Ike's landfall in Texas because the Akron, Ohio, company was told winds in this area were not expected to peak beyond 20 mph on Sunday.

"We turned our crews around. Some are back now, and some will be back (Wednesday)," said spokesman Chris Eck.

Wind and trees took down more than 12,000 power lines and left more than 1 million customers without power in FirstEnergy's service territory in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, Eck said. A quarter of a million customers were still without power Tuesday afternoon, Eck said, including 30,000 served by the company's Penn Power subsidiary in Western Pennsylvania.

"It was easily the biggest weather event of our company's history," Eck said.

The storm -- which brought wind gusts in excess of 60 mph -- knocked out power to more than 100,000 Allegheny Energy customers, putting it among the worst storms the company has dealt with, said spokesman Doug Colafella.

The utility brought in 200 repair crews from its West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland territories to help the 55 crews in Western Pennsylvania, Colafella said. Many are working in Butler County, the hardest-hit area, where more than 20,000 customers are not expected to have electricity until at least Thursday.

"It's a mess up there, and it's taking a long time," Colafella said.

An estimated 105,000 Duquesne Light customers also lost power Sunday. As of yesterday afternoon, 21,000 still were without electricity, the company reported.

Hurricane Ike appears to have caused this year's most widespread power outages, with at least 2 million people affected in Houston and the Gulf Coast and a million in Ohio and Pennsylvania. A January storm in northern California cut power to about 2.8 million customers, some of whom went without electricity for 10 days, according to U.S. Department of Energy records.

Severe winds and storms cut power to more than 6.3 million customers in all of 2007, according to records of major service interruptions that utilities must report to the department.

Rich Lordan, an expert at the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute, said agreements among utilities to share crews in case of emergency can only go so far.

"When you have a big storm, that complicates things, because every utility is impacted and every crew is working. When a big storm like Ike comes through, it pushes everybody to the limit," Lordan said.

There also is a limit to what can be done to protect power lines from severe weather, said Jay Apt, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's Electricity Industry Center, whose 12 faculty members and 20 doctoral students research the power industry.

Burying lines makes them vulnerable to flooding and harder to access when repairs are needed, he said. Besides, putting lines underground is costly.

"Of course, the day that you're without power you're willing to pay a lot of money to get it back," Apt said. "But the week before that, if your state legislator came to you and said that we're going to levy a tax to increase electric reliability, you would have kicked him out."

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