South Bellingham resident Phil Humphries, his neighbors and about 6,000 other Whatcom and Skagit residents sat in dark, cold houses the day after Christmas waiting for Puget Sound Energy to restore electric service during an outage caused by heavy snowfall.
Before the Christmas outage investor-owned utility PSE had experienced 160 hours of service downtime across its Washington state service areas due to major weather disturbances in 2021. The total outage hours were almost three times more than the number of outage hours due to severe weather in 2020, and storm repairs cost twice as much as the year before.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2021 reliability report as of Dec. 23 lists major outages in January, September and October which affected a total of 320,000 out of PSE’s nearly 1.2 million Washington customers. By comparison, 2020’s two major outages totaling 48 hours affected 71,500 customers.
The electricity for Humphries and his neighbors was restored after 22 hours. However, some customers have at times been left without power for days.
Where to start?
According to Melanie Coon, communications manager for PSE, it’s difficult to immediately determine which areas require more attention during a major weather event due to the sheer number of variables that impact restoration.
“There’s lengthier power outages that are tough to get to,” Coon said. “It’s not a matter of just hooking something up. In some cases, it may just be removing branches and trees from lines, while in other cases it might be replacing entire power or transmission poles and lines. And access to these locations can vary from storm to storm.”
Outages are expensive. According to PSE’s Fourth Quarter SEC filing, the company’s 2021 storm costs totaled $29 million, over $14 million more than 2020. In a double loss, during an outage the utility doesn’t collect on power sold to customers.
The energy company’s total storm-related losses since 2012 reached $121 million in 2020 before write-offs, according to PSE’s report to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. High repair costs can be attributed to the sheer size of the company’s service area, according to Coon.
“We have the largest market share for electrical and gas,” Coon said. “The cost is large because we are one of the largest service providers in the state.”
PSE was the object of 90% of the 191 electricity-related customer complaints filed to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission in 2021 and 84% of the complaints filed in 2020. PSE has refunded over $50,000 to customers since the beginning of 2020. By comparison, investor-owned utilities Avista Corporation and Pacific Power & Light Company were responsible for 47 complaints and refunded just $1,259.50 over the same period.
Customers in control
Extended outages have prompted some PSE customers to take matters into their own hands.
Humphries and some of his neighbors have been looking into emergency generators to keep power on during outages.
But generator prices have skyrocketed due to COVID-related supply chain issues and increased demand in general, staggering those looking to ensure emergency access to electric power.
“The price was quite a shock … [there were] a lot of variables, but [a generator] could be between $7,500 and $9,000. One of my neighbors actually got a quote around $13,000,” Humphries said. “I’ve got a friend who’s an early adopter and he got himself a house generator 10 years ago. I asked him what it cost, and he said it was $4,300.”
Average outage times for PSE aren’t available for 2021 from the U.S Energy Information Administration, but in 2020 PSE customers experienced an average of 7 hours of outages, higher than the average of 6 hours of downtime across all utility companies and districts.
PSE customers are referred to the company’s online outage map, which provides per-location estimates of when power will be restored. However, customers often report inaccurate, frequently changing or nonexistent estimates for their area.
“It used to be pretty reliable,” Humphries said. “You can’t expect to be right on the dot, but I’ve noticed a few times this year that it would give you an estimated time and then an hour or so later they extended it a few hours. It was getting less reliable.”
According to Coon, these varied estimates are the result of shifting on-ground priorities and overall confidence in restoration.
“We have different places in the region where people will go and actually be in the region, working 24/7 on the issue, dispatching crews,” Coons said. “People hate seeing ‘TBD’ [to be determined] … [but] when you see TBD a lot, it’s because we’re not sure how long the repairs are going to take.”
Rebekah Anderson, communications manager at Tacoma Public Utilities, said that urban environments are often less likely to experience an outage due to fewer trees and branches and other factors interfering with transmission lines. And during outages, urban areas are often given higher priority compared to rural ones.
“We have a mostly urban and suburban service territory compared to PSE, so less vegetation interfering with power lines,” Anderson said. “While some repairs in urban areas can result in large numbers of customers being restored, rural repairs may take just as many resources and time but result in far fewer customers being restored.”
PSE’s Energy System Restoration Plan notes that the utility gives highest priority to restoring transmission lines and transmission substations. After transmission systems, priority is given to repairing distribution substations that supply power to residential areas, with priority given to substations that power critical services such as hospitals, airports and police stations.
Higher-density residential areas such as Bellingham receive priority over lower-population rural areas, the intent being to restore power to as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Getting the crews out
PSE distinguishes major power disruptions as regional, significant and major events.
Regional outages are managed entirely by regional resources, whereas significant events require coordination and resource reallocation between different service regions. Major events, the highest level of disruption, are the result of extreme weather disruption and require extensive outside resources from neighboring utility companies.
“We call them foreign crews. They’re not automatically at the ready, but we bring in who we can to get everyone’s power back on as fast as we can,” Coon said.
Seattle City Light, a municipal utility, has the second largest residential customer base in Washington with nearly 500,000 customers. According to Jenn Strang, media relations manager, customers experience an average of 2.5 hours of outages a year in large part because of a dense service area, daily maintenance routines and worker familiarity with problematic areas.
“Our crews maintain, repair and replace infrastructure and equipment as part of their daily job tasks.” Strang said. “If a utility pole comes down, they know exactly how to handle it during a storm because it is a frequent repair.”
Prevention goes beyond repair
Despite the increases in outage length, frequency and cost, PSE tries to take steps to prevent future outages beyond simply repairing what’s broken, according to Coons.
“A big part of what we do off-season and all through the year is just doing tree trimming,” Coon said. “We do tree wire, where you fortify the wire so when something does hit it, it doesn’t necessarily have any impact or may prevent it from shorting out or have the damage that it normally would.”
For Humphries, his neighbors and the rest of PSE’s customers, there isn’t much to do when the power goes out besides sit and hope that power is restored soon. Most customers won’t get an emergency generating system but will be checking the PSE outage map for the latest information. Operating an electric generation and distribution system is more than simply repairing what’s broken— but when it’s broken, it’s in everybody’s interest to get it fixed as soon as possible.
— Reporting by Kenneth Duncan
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