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Power Outrage

By Kimberly K. Barlow , Times Staff


"It's a bright sunny day and there's no breeze, and the power's out again," became the joke at WKST radio in Shenango Township last summer.

More than a dozen unexplained brief power outages plagued the station, prompting the dark humor, station manager Dan Lankford said. "You expect power problems when there's bad weather or a car hits a pole," Lankford said, still unable to explain exactly what caused the station's difficulties.

He estimated the studio or its West Pittsburg (Lawrence County) transmitter had 13 or 14 outages last year, most between late July and September.

The problems forced the station off the air repeatedly. Backup generators kick in when power is lost, but the station transmitter shuts down in between and must be restarted manually. That posed no problem during the day when plenty of employees were around. But at night, when few people were on hand, the problem could go undetected, leaving the station off the air for as long as 10 to 15 minutes.

"It seemed like it became more prevalent. ... It became every week or so," Lankford said. He lodged a complaint with the state Public Utility Commission and called Penn Power. His complaints netted him a meeting with the electric company.

"They were saying it was nothing more than a string of bad luck on their part: falling branches, falling trees," he said. Since that meeting, Lankford said he hasn't had further problems.

WKST may have had extraordinarily difficult experiences with its power, but its plight is something we all can relate to: Who hasn't been in a retail store when the power goes out, bringing commerce to a halt when cash registers will no longer register. What office worker hasn't let out a collective groan with co-workers when the lights flicker and computers die - or endured the challenge of determining whether your day's work is gone for good?

Some electricity customers find the annoyances are coming more frequently. For others, it merely seems that way. The stakes are higher, both for businesses and residential customers, as reliable electricity becomes increasingly indispensable in everyday life.

Reliability hinges on myriad factors ranging from storms that blow tree branches onto power lines to squirrels venturing into substations. Deregulation is also playing a part as power companies adjust manpower and maintenance to a leaner way of doing business while striving to keep both stockholders and customers happy.

'We've got a problem here'

Locally, state Rep. Frank LaGrotta, D-10, Ellwood City, has taken the outage issue to heart in response to complaints from his constituents, all of whom are served by Penn Power.

For some, power outages are more costly than the simple annoyance of coming home to find digital clocks and timers blinking. LaGrotta recounted a call he received from a New Wilmington sawmill operator complaining that power outages were causing the company's equipment to reset. He's also heard from a local woman whose husband relies on medical equipment to counteract his sleep apnea. Nighttime power outages threaten his well-being because the cost of a power backup system is out of the question, LaGrotta said.

He gives Penn Power credit for responding, but he's concerned that he's getting no consistent feedback from the power company, the governor's office or the PUC. Promises of "we'll look into it" aren't enough, he said. He said he's heard that since June or July. "It's frustrating," LaGrotta said.

He suspects partisan politics is also having an effect on the response he's receiving from state agencies.

"Let's just do our job," he said, arguing that it shouldn't matter who's Republican or Democrat. "We've got a problem here."

LaGrotta said he's spoken with state legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle and has been promised arrangements will be made this legislative session to hold hearings on power reliability. If investigative hearings show electric choice has reduced reliability, LaGrotta said he's prepared "to go back and correct those mistakes."

Penn Power customers aren't alone. Duquesne Light power outages at Monroeville machining firm Versa-Fab Inc. prompted a formal complaint to the PUC. The filing cited three outages in August 1998 and nine additional outages that owner Jim Cullen estimated resulted in more than $21,600 in lost production and failed equipment.

According to the complaint, the company had to close and send its work force home on four occasions and once had to cancel a shift, resulting in losses of $12,000.

Duquesne Light spokesman Barry Kukovich said the utility ordinarily will compare its records with the complainant's claims and report the reasons for any outages to the PUC. A hearing was scheduled for mid-January, but the two parties reached an agreement before the case could be heard. Details of the settlement were not disclosed.

The role of electric choice

LaGrotta voted for electric choice, in which consumers can choose their electric supplier, but now wonders whether Pennsylvanians are being well-served.

"Everyone said this was going to be good for Pennsylvania," LaGrotta said. Promises included no job loss, lower prices and better service. "People have been laid off, no one's called me to say their electric bill's gone down. ...We're 0-for-3," he said.

"People keep saying, 'You're just overreacting,'" he said. " I don't think I am."

LaGrotta said he began to receive complaints about power outages in the past eight to 12 months. "When it's one person (complaining) all the time, I say they have a problem. When I get it from everywhere, I know it's an issue."

He theorizes personnel cuts by utility firms may be a contributing factor in the increase in complaints he's receiving. "They're having problems ... and they're laying off the people supposed to fix it," he said.

Likewise, David Hughes, executive director of Citizen Power, a Pittsburgh-based electricity watchdog group, has his own suspicions about outages.

"If it's not related to a storm, it is probably a problem in the distribution system," Hughes said. Distribution is the equipment, poles and wires - everything it takes to bring the power from the transmission system to your electrical outlets. And keep in mind, regardless of which firm sells you your power in these days of electric choice, the company you had before is still bringing the power to your home.

"They always say it's a tree on a power line, but there's plenty of outages that have nothing to do with that," he said.

Hughes, too, blames work force cuts. He claims Duquesne Light and FirstEnergy, which operates Pennsylvania Power, are in similar straits.

"Fundamentally, historically, the problem at Duquesne is that in order to deal with their massive nuclear debt, which is in the billions, and in order to keep their shareholders in the best returns, they cut," Hughes said. He added that fewer workers means ordinary maintenance tasks may suffer, and when legitimate events such as storms cause outages, the workers who must respond are stretched thin, lengthening delays in restoring service.

"The workers claim they just don't have the work force" to respond quickly when outages occur, he said, citing conversations he's had with a FirstEnergy employee in northeastern Ohio where outages have been a problem.

Bart Spagnola, New Castle area manager for Penn Power, admits keeping shareholders happy is a valid concern, "but not at the expense of customers." Safety of employees and customer reliability has to come first, he said.

Statistics from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission show that employment at Duquesne Light and Penn Power has indeed steadily dropped since 1994 - a reduction of 42.9 percent at Duquesne Light and 30.9 percent at Penn Power. (See accompanying chart.) During that time, operations and maintenance expenditures have fluctuated, ranging between $546.8 million and $594 million at Duquesne Light and $149.29 million to $170.9 million at Penn Power.

"Sure the work force has been cut. Utilities were pretty fat at one time," Spagnola said. "Now, deregulation has changed a lot of things. "

He denied that Penn Power is short-staffed. "They are doing the work and having no problem," Spagnola said.

Kukovich said the sale of Duquesne Light's generation facilities is the cause of the declining employment numbers. Workers with jobs affiliated with generation simply are no longer part of Duquesne Light. No cuts have been made to line or substation maintenance staff, he said.

"In our case, now that we no longer are selling electricity, the business has shifted to the service end," Kukovich said. "Service is our entire product."

A balancing act

Ahmed Kaloko, director of the PUC's Bureau of Conservation, Economics and Energy Planning, maintains that Pennsylvania has one of the most reliable power systems anywhere. "Our reliability is very high compared to many, many states," he said.

LaGrotta still is not so sure.

"That's ducky, but that's not a good answer," he said. "If my car breaks down three times a week and yours breaks down five, I should be happy about that?"

LaGrotta recounts conversations with power company employees who won't give their names but who, he said, tell how routine maintenance has been cut. In some cases, he said, parts that were once replaced on a regular maintenance schedule are now being kept until they fail, leading to outages, LaGrotta said.

There have been some changes, Spagnola admitted. "With deregulation, you can't waste," he said, recalling a time when poles, meters and transformers were replaced on a set schedule, regardless of condition.

"Poles, you'd pull them out of the ground, good or bad. Now we don't do that. We threw out a lot of good poles," he said. "You just can't throw away things now. You go out, you look, survey and decide. Where mass pole replacements once were done on schedule, now you leave them alone if they're good."

Some routine maintenance has been cut, but too many cuts can backfire. It's a balancing act. Proper preventive maintenance can be the most economical choice of all.

"If a big customer goes down, you lose revenue. If it's on a weekend or night, you're paying double-time or time-and-a-half crews," Spagnola said.

One thing's certain: Deregulation has forced power companies to economize while still trying to keep their customers from taking their business elsewhere.

"We're not guaranteed that revenue we were always guaranteed," Spagnola said. "Any day, you can lose those kilowatt hours. ... It's a risk factor we've never had before."

Watch out for those trees

Michael Lamb, a Brookline native now living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., is a certified energy manager with the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse in Merrifield, Va. He notices a distinct difference in the reliability of power he receives from the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative compared with his recollections of western Pennsylvania.

"They (Northern Virginia) have a very, very good maintenance program," he said, impressed with its high reliability. To him, the reason why he's never been without power for any extended period of time is as simple as a Sunday drive. In Pittsburgh, "Just drive down any street with trees on it," he said. "Branches are within inches of the wires." That's something that, in his opinion, no power company should allow if it wants to keep outages low.

Many experts say the No. 1 problem is trees. Looking at a company's tree-trimming budget and schedule can tell a lot about how reliable its power distribution is going to be. But trimming poses problems. While homeowners hate to have their power go out, they also protest when power company contractors come by and trim their favorite pines, oaks and maples. Making matters worse, the Pittsburgh region is among the most heavily forested urban areas in the nation.

As for maintenance, Kukovich said Duquesne Light had 1,711 tree-related outages in 1997, a rise from 1995 and 1996 levels, which were both just under 1,400. The spike prompted an aggressive spurt of tree-trimming that reduced 2000's tree-related incidents to 742.

According to Duquesne Light's 2000 Reliability Report submitted to the PUC, the company is on a five-year vegetation management cycle aimed at clearing lines and deterring future growth.

It's also changed its methods, on the advice of urban forestry experts. Instead of "topping" trees, which means simply lopping off the tops of trees that could interfere with electric lines, the company performs "directional pruning" that removes only the offending branches, leaving a sort of Y-shaped tree that avoids the power lines. "A lot of those you never have to go back to," Kukovich said.

Spagnola said Penn Power has been on a four-year pruning schedule for at least the past half decade. "At one time, we were on a seven-year cycle," he said. The company monitors trees in the sections scheduled for trimming in the next two years, and reprioritizes pruning if needed to take care of faster-growing vegetation.

Pruning still isn't foolproof. Depending on the type of line, rights of way extend 25, 50 or 100 feet. The company can't trim trees that grow beyond those boundaries. So, in spite of the best trimming plan, sometimes a very tall tree growing beyond the company's grasp can give way and send reliability crashing.

Comparing our utilities

So how do Duquesne Light and Penn Power stack up with other utility companies in terms of reliability?

It's hard to make simple comparisons, cautioned Eugene Gorzelnik of the North American Electric Reliability Council. To compare apples with apples, one needs to examine the companies' various types of generation facilities, the loads they serve, and the climate and terrain. Other factors include how concentrated or far-flung an electric company's customers are. The amount of urban, suburban and rural service area can affect reliability statistics, and no two are identical.

In general, companies with more urban and high-density suburban customers may have better reliability figures because their areas may have more underground lines and fewer trees. Rural and forested areas may tend toward lower reliability; the same may hold true for flat areas that are subject to storms.

That said, Penn Power ranks best among the big-six Pennsylvania electric companies when it comes to the PUC's five-year benchmark figures measuring how long customers are without power when outages occur, and for the lowest minutes-per-year for the average duration of sustained interruptions per customer. Duquesne Light ranks second and fifth, respectively.

Allegheny Power ranked best in the number of sustained interruptions per customer per year and for momentary interruptions per year. Penn Power was third and Duquesne Light fifth in the sustained interruptions category.

Penn Power ranked worst and Duquesne Light was not rated in the momentary interruptions category. Momentary interruptions are the annoying outages that last just long enough to make the lights blink. They often occur when it's windy and are frequently caused by something - a tree branch, bird or animal - coming into contact with power lines. The power goes off and on quickly as breakers close momentarily to make sure the entire system doesn't fail. They make customers' lights flicker as they close and reopen several times in hopes the line has cleared. If the line isn't cleared, the system is shut down to keep it from shorting out and the power goes out.

A few years back, momentary outages might have been considered just a nuisance. In today's increasingly digital world, a split-second power outage can send computers crashing and digital appliances flashing.

"People used to be able to live with momentaries," Spagnola said. No more.

Although West Virginia's Public Service Commission does not collect reliability statistics, Allegheny Power provided reliability figures for its Weirton service area, which covers 29,426 customers in Brooke and Hancock counties in West Virginia's northern panhandle.

In comparison with Pennsylvania's big-six, Allegheny Power's Weirton area would rank lowest in the frequency and duration of sustained interruptions per customer, but high in the duration of sustained interruptions for customers who have outages - rivaling the company's marks in its Pennsylvania service areas. Allegheny Power has about a half-million customers in southwestern and central Pennsylvania.

Improvements ahead

Changes that reduce the frequency and duration of power outages not only please the PUC, but make customers happier as well.

To reduce momentary outages, Penn Power is changing the way it protects its line reclosers - the fuse devices that are located near poles. Reclosers were set to try to clear the lines four times, causing momentary outages each time before finally blowing the fuse. Now they'll try only twice.

People will still be in the dark, but it'll be fewer people. "We sacrifice a few customers for the sake of the whole circuit, but get them back online quickly," Spagnola said. The offending recloser can be pinpointed quickly so a repairman can be dispatched. And troubleshooters will examine any that trip too frequently.

Penn Power is adding more reclosers to its lines, especially near substations, so multiple recloser problems that may occur during storms won't take out a whole substation.

Four Duquesne Light trucks equipped with infrared constantly tour the company's 45,000 miles of line, 103,000 transformers and 250,000 utility poles in Beaver and Allegheny counties, searching for hot spots that could lead to outages. Once a year, helicopters videotape all the major lines for inspection.

And changes are under way at Duquesne Light.

Earlier this year, some of the call center staff were transferred to the operations center in Pittsburgh's Manchester section to simplify communications between those who call the shots when outages occur and those who pass the information on to customers who call.

An interactive voice system is being rolled out this year to let callers know when Duquesne Light is already aware of a particular outage, freeing live operators to handle other calls more quickly.

A new outage analysis system is in the final stages. Duquesne Light's electric meters have transmitters that report their status to cell control units on nearby streetlight poles. Others transmit information through phone lines.

These devices can tell where they're located, right down to the particular transformer, to help pinpoint the location of power outages so repair crews can be sent.

When completed, said Richard Day, manager of process control, the system will sense which customers have an outage and generate a work order. Using historical data from similar situations, the system will estimate how long it will take to restore power and automatically schedule the optimal plan for restoring all power, although human supervisors will review the plan.

Day, who is fine-tuning the outage notification part, expects the program to be fully operational in time for storm season, which begins around April.

Also new is a pilot program begun in September on three of the company's 576 circuits. Each has a line supervisor who will patrol it along with a line technician to identify potential problems.

The plan relies on local workers' expertise and sometimes even their gut feelings about a potential weak spot in the circuit. Although the program won't be evaluated until March, initial indications are positive.

"I think we're going to expand it," Kukovich said.

At Penn Power, along with changing the way its reclosers work, employees have reviewed the lines on foot and by helicopter, and have performed preventive maintenance on those that weren't working as they should.

"Everyone was up in arms about outages we had (over the summer) in the Ellwood City and New Castle areas," prompting a hard look at possible causes, Spagnola said.

Penn Power evaluated all its circuits and prioritized problem areas. They ranged from utility pole crossarms that had been weakened by woodpeckers to rusting transformers and cracked insulators.

Those with the worst problems were sent to the top of the maintenance list in July. Work on the remainder could be complete as early as March, Spagnola said.

The company is adding extra lines that can handle up to 50,000 calls an hour for reporting outages, and Youngstown-area work crews are now linked with the New Castle service area, making more crews available when the lights go out, he said.

"We've cleared up a lot of things this year. We look for 2001 to be a good year," he said.

-- Martin Thompson (, February 04, 2001


A few years back, momentary outages might have been considered just a nuisance. In today's increasingly digital world, a split-second power outage can send computers crashing and digital appliances flashing.

"People used to be able to live with momentaries," Spagnola said. No more.

If you do not have a battery backup for your computer you are at taking a big chance. I do recommend APC brand UPS

Just a very satisfied customer!

-- fair use act quotation: for educational and reserach purposes (, February 04, 2001.

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