Room for improvement, but grid outages are a reality - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Room for improvement, but grid outages are a reality

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Bury them, fortify them, clear them of trees — all of these things make a line less susceptible to compromise, but in the end, getting used to the occasional outage may just be reality. 

After two major storms struck West Virginia and left hundreds without power for days or weeks, it reignited the discussion of grid reliability. The problem is, one solution can't tackle the many varied troubles of a network as complex as the state's — let alone the nation's — power grid.

Burying lines? Too expensive. Eliminating surrounding trees? You might have to clear cut a whole mountain. Better infrastructure? Nothing in the right price range has proven itself invincible. 

Stories from the outage illustrate the frustrations of West Virginia ratepayers. 

Rhonda Nichols, a resident of Swandale in Clay County, said she lost everything in her freezer and had to buy a generator after losing power for 15 days in the summer due to the June 28 derecho and 13 days in October due to hurricane-turned-superstorm Sandy.

"The hard-working man can't get a break or help," Nichols said in a message explaining her outages. 

Tara Walker, who lives off U.S.  Route 60 between Hurricane and St. Albans, said trees knocked down power lines near her home. She said she received calls twice from the utility company informing her that power had been restored though it remained dark. 

"Hope it doesn't happen any in 2013," she said, adding later that she also had purchased a generator.

Kimberly Chapman, a Boone County resident, said she had to put a generator on a credit card and have MRE meals sent to her home following the June derecho. Her family cooked outside with camping equipment and kept cool in their swimming pool. 

"I've never felt so forgotten in all my life," she said, noting power went out for four days following the derecho and then again for 10 days in October thanks to superstorm Sandy. 

If it seems weather-related outages are up, you're not alone. Phil Wright, vice president of distribution operations for Appalachian Power, said the Energy Information Administration's analysis of grid disturbances showed non-weather outages were relatively flat. However, outages from weather-related incidents increased more than 10 times over 10 years. 

The problem is tricky to fix. It's notable that grid reliability had two different approaches depending on whether one is talking about widespread outages in large storms such as the June derecho or the October hurricane/snowstorm. 

"There are some things that can be done," Wright said. "Our greatest challenge is vegetation management. West Virginia is the third most vegetated state in the nation. That creates a lot of challenges."

Are Trees to Blame?

Don Walker, an electrical engineer with the West Virginia Public Service Commission, said the nature of some storms makes it difficult to predict where problems might occur. 

"Typically, in a non-emergency situation, many of our outages come from mountainous, timbered areas," Walker said. "Part of that is the tree situation."

Large storms, however, have destructive capabilities that do so much damage it can be difficult to prevent outages short of destroying every tree on a mountainside. 

Getting to many of the places in West Virginia can be difficult enough. Cutting all the trees that appear to prove a threat is not practical, Wright said. 

"How far up the mountainside are you willing to go to eliminate all the trees that could possibly fall on the power line? I think if you really look at the answer, I think many of our customers would find that prohibitive," he said.

Vegetation management is a solution for routine outages, he added, but it may not have helped in the state's two large storm scenarios this year.

"It's one thing when you have a branch that surrounds a line and a wind storm knocks that branch down," said Susan Small, a spokeswoman for the PSC. "June 29 and October 29, we had 100-year oaks that were picked up by their roots and thrown on top of the transmission wires. That's a completely different situation than routine tree maintenance."

Burying the lines, Walker said, is too expensive and exposes the grid to new problems such as earth movement or corrosion. 

"In the industry, it's a fact that we're going to have power outages," Walker said. "There's nothing we can do about it, or the power company."

Reliability Rules

Walker said the PSC has established some new rules about outages that bring West Virginia in line with national standards. Those rules require utilities to meet standards based on outage frequency, length and system-wide reliability.

"I believe in the future these rules are going to be really helpful in limiting the number, frequency and also the length of outages we are now currently experiencing," Walker said.  

One way Appalachian Power is addressing the problem is new distribution poles. Made of a composite of materials, they are lighter than regular wood poles and can be quickly placed by a small helicopter.

Accepting that outages will occur in large storms, but building resiliency — or ability to spring back to normal — is the focus of many modern utilities. Wright said recovering quickly can be more easily addressed than trying to prevent all outages.  

One technology allows switching of transmission automatically. This basically detours electricity away from troubled pathways to operating lines until repairs can be made. 

"In the event something occurs, it has the ability to switch automatically and keep the majority of customers in service until someone can get onsite and make the repairs," Wright said. 

Such technology is already being used by Appalachian Power, Wright said. A system at Southridge is an example. There, power can be diverted to keep electricity flowing to businesses and traffic lights if a residential line has gone down. 

Reliability indices measured at each utility are reported through filings made to the PSC. 

"The theory behind that is that it kind of forces them to look at what they have to do, and it gives us a heads up about what the issues are," Walker said. "The thing that we need right now is time. We've implemented these rules we have to see how they work. We at the commission, as well as the power companies, are learning how to use these rules and prioritize reliability."

Frequent Outage Areas

The farther away from electrical stations, the more vulnerable a user may be to outages. In the cases of widespread outages, communities with certain resources are targeted first to maximize recovery efforts. 

The PSC allows users who feel they have chronic or recurring problems to informally report those issues to the PSC. If that doesn't resolve the issue, a formal complaint can be filed. 

"Usually we find a resolution or find a way to improve service in that area," Walker said.

What about places that seem to experience more regular or longer outages than others? Rural areas and even wooded urban areas, Wright said, tend to be the places most vulnerable to those problems. 

"Some subdivisions that pride themselves on the aesthetics of the neighborhood and won't necessarily allow us to cut trees the way they need to be to reduce outages, I think those folks are seeing large number of outages also," Wright said. 

For now, Walker said, he's asking consumers to have patience as the entire grid and its regulators try to build more reliability, resiliency and recovery into the grid. 

"As a consumer of electricity myself, I know how frustrating it is to be without power," he said. "I do honestly believe with our rules we're going to improve reliability."