New England’s Nightmare Blizzard Could Also Cause Problems for PA

The impact this major winter storm forming over New England has on you will depend on where you live in Pennsylvania. Some areas of the Poconos could see a foot and a half of new snow, with up to 8 inches projected across the northern tier and a possible half-foot in the Philadelphia region. It could be more of a wintry mix for south-central and southwestern PA, with 1-to-3 inches in the Harrisburg area and minor accumulations, if any, in and around Pittsburgh.

This storm is the result of the convergence of two systems over New England, where forecasters say 2-to-3 feet of snow is possible in some areas. That will mean the chance for major utility outages as heavy snow brings down tree limbs and power lines. Utility trucks were already gathering in staging areas near Harrisburg this morning, preparing to be dispatched to areas of need later today.

High winds are also expected in New England, with potential hurricane-strength gusts.

Public Utility Commission Continues Review of Storm Power Outages

Between the end of August and end of October, Pennsylvania was hit by a hurricane, tropical storm and October snowstorm.  The state Public Utility Commission is still reviewing the impact on the power grid.

The PUC held a special electric reliability forum in October.  While the majority of customers had service restored in 48 hours, some people were out of service for days. During a recent house budget hearing, the commission was asked about right-of-way maintenance. 

Commissioner Wayne Gardner says trees in the right-of-way are not the only problem.  He says on average more than 40% of the time customers are without power is due to trees and vegetation outside of the right-of-way.  He says he has personally viewed trees that were out of a right-of-way by some 60 feet that were about 100 feet high and capable of taking down three or four poles at a time.

Utilities already have right-of-way maintenance programs.  They’ve been asked to look at the issue of trees that are outside of their control, and make some recommendations to the PUC for how to approach the problem.  Gardner hopes the commission will have some recommendations this summer.

One state representative suggested that tree and vegetation issues might be better solved locally by a Shade Tree Commission.

Lawmaker Calls for Penalties for Prolonged Power Outages

A state lawmaker thinks power companies should have to pay up if they don’t do enough to address prolonged power outages that cost their customers.   Representative Tom Caltagirone (D-Berks) is proposing a bill that would make utilities compensate customers for unreasonably long power outages.   

Caltagirone   questions whether utilities are underfunding maintenance and repair. He says he’s been told maintenance and repair staffs have been substantially reduced.  He says he doesn’t want to penalize utilities that are doing the right thing.

Caltagirone’s Reading area neighborhood had been without power since the early season snowstorm hit on Saturday.  He says the lengthy outages in Pennsylvania have been happening back to back to back.

Caltagirone says a lot of businesses are hurting in this economic climate and being without power for a prolonged period hurts them even more.  He says workers are also being affected as are homeowners, schools, nursing homes and people on life-supporting medical devices.

Caltagirone says the utilities need to “fess up” as to what’s going on- are they not prepared, could they be better prepared? He feels a recent Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission special reliability meeting  on Hurricane Irene outages did not dig deep enough.

Caltagirone wants to know if electric utilities are cutting down overhanging limbs, reinforcing the couplets and the lines, and whether they could be using better technology.  But he says he understands it would be too expensive to bury all of the lines.

Caltagirone hopes his bill will help get some of these answers. He says he understands the situations are acts of nature, but he questions how much preventative maintenance is being done.

Caltagirone says the goal is not to put any utility out of business.  But he says they’re basically a monopoly in many areas and customers depend on them.

PUC to Review Handling of Power Outages During Hurricane Irene

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will take a closer look at how electric utilities handled outages during Hurricane Irene in a special forum next month. At the height of the storm, there were some 768,000 customers without power.  Some were without service for up to ten days. Overall, there were more than 1.3 million customer outages throughout the storm

The PUC will hold a Special Electric Reliability Forum to take a closer look at how the utilities prepared for Irene and handled storm damage. Spokeswomen Jennifer Kocher says some things were handled extremely well by the utilities and there were other things that didn’t go quite so well.  She says the forum is an effort to learn lessons for the next storm.

Kocher says the commission wants to look at how pre-planning went, what communication efforts were made with customers and how the electric utilities worked to restore service to affected customers.

Kocher says most of the utilities have Irene in their top five of outage storms.  She says the commission recognizes it was not the norm, but it’s always an opportunity to learn from what happened, what they can do better and how to move forward from here.

The forum will be held on October 12th from 1:30 pm until 5 pm at the  Commonwealth Keystone Building in Harrisburg. There will be an opportunity for the public to offer comment at the conclusion of the formal remarks.   

Kocher says the commission, at its meeting on Thursday, did make a rule change that will mean utilities will have to regularly provide more information on pre-storm preparation and mutual aid in the future.