Power lines: Will W.Va. PSC step up on reliability?

July 11, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

We published a story in today’s Gazette print edition (it’s online here) about an issue that’s been mostly ignored by other mainstream media, despite the endless amounts of coverage devoted to the June 29 “derecho” storm and its lingering power outage impacts across West Virginia. Here’s the bottom line:

As West Virginians deal with the aftermath of a series of thunderstorms that swept through the state over the last two weeks, state regulators are quietly considering the first-ever targets for how utilities should minimize power outages and quickly get electricity back on for their customers.

But officials from the state Public Service Commission’s staff and Consumer Advocate Division are concerned that plans proposed by the industry will do little to really improve the reliability of West Virginia’s electrical system.

Just last month, PSC staff warned commissioners that utility proposals would simply require companies “to complete work which was neglected for the past ten years.”

“Very little, if any improvement over the current issues causing outages will change and the infrastructure will continue to deteriorate,” wrote Donald E. Walker, a technical analyst with the PSC staff’s engineering division.

You can read Walker’s report for yourself here, and I’d also recommend as interesting reading this previous PSC staff testimony regarding reliability issues, presented as part of the commission’s investigation into the last major West Virginia blackouts, during the December 2009 winter storms.

There have been a few interesting pieces by mainstream media about these sorts of issues, such as this one about burying power lines by Taylor Kuykendall and Pam Kasey at The State Journal. And it wasn’t surprising that Pam Kasey appears to be one of the few in the mainstream media who understands the difference between electrical transmission and distribution lines.

Luckily, we have a couple of citizen journalists here in West Virginia who have been digging through PSC filings and asking tough questions about electrical reliability issues in the wake of the storms. Heck, I stole most of today’s story from them. Just a couple examples of the interesting blogging that’s been done.

Just a few days after the storm ripped through the state, Bill Howley wrote a post on his blog, The Power Line, WV Blackout 2012 – Didn’t We Just Go Through This? He explained:

Here is the second major WV blackout in three years. AEP and FirstEnergy get rate payer subsidies from FERC for giant interstate transmission projects, while WV politicians and PSC allow the same power companies to run our WV distribution system into the ground. There really isn’t much more to say.

Bill continued:

If you want a real laugh, just take a look at this May 2012 report filed by FirstEnergy telling the WV PSC that everything was just hunky dory with their high voltage transmission towers in WV.  In the report, FirstEnergy concluded that their WV companies, Mon Power and Potomac Edison are doing a great job:

Based on the most recent condition, reliability and capacity assessments of the EHV [extra high voltage] Facilities in West Virginia, there are no immediate or short term plans (within the next five years) for upgrading the structures, conductor or hardware on the EHV Facilities in West Virginia. The Companies will continue to implement their inspection and maintenance programs and to participate actively in the RTEP process.

A few days later, Bill wrote another post called AEP and FirstEnergy Just Can’t Do Reliability Unless They Get FERC Incentives in which he explained:

… The WV PSC bears some responsibility in this matter for failing to encourage investment in widely distributed small generation sources in our state. Distributed generation has reliability built into its very structure, while distribution of electricity over long distances from massive power plants is always vulnerable to disruption by weather. But WV’s PSC supports big transmission projects, and FERC provides big rate payer subsidies for interstate transmission lines, while WV’s own electrical system goes to hell in a handbasket.

Then there’s Keryn Newman and the StopPathWV blog, which reminded us:

In 2011, the WV Legislature adopted a resolution requiring the PSC to investigate the condition of one of FirstEnergy’s transmission lines in the area of the recently failed tower, and order rebuilding as necessary. The PSC blew both the legislature and reliability issues off last year when their own staff filed a motion to require WV utilities to submit evaluations of their high-voltage transmission systems in the state. Instead, the PSC only required FirstEnergy to file a report, as they had ordered in the TrAIL case in 2008. How much fault does the WV PSC have in the transmission tower failure by not carrying out the recommendations of the legislature, and by not requiring our electric utilities to meet reliability standards? Heads will roll, so FirstEnergy’s fat cats are busy spinning their failure as a dramatic “act of God.”

While your main concern right now may be getting your power back on and getting your life back on track, the aftermath of this massive FirstEnergy reliability failure will live on, both in your electric bill, and at the WV PSC.

Keryn also provided this interesting tidbit about those power line towers:

Engineers have known for years that old transmission towers, such as FirstEnergy’s, aren’t designed to withstand the “downburst” winds that can occur with thunderstorms.  Downburst wind has a different effect on transmission lines than the regular wind they were designed to withstand.  Downburst wind creates tower failures that look like the pictures above.

“An investigation of the collapse of transmission towers due to downbursts has shown that damage of the members in the second and third panels above the bottom was quite significant, but no damage was observed in the bottom panel of the tower.”

When will FirstEnergy and other companies who own the average 40-year old high-voltage transmission lines that criss-cross our state and nation, be required to upgrade their infrastructure to avoid these costly and dangerous failures?  And when will these companies be required to design their towers to withstand downburst winds?  Or are costly repair/replacement and occasional human casualties simply one more “acceptable” risk that landowners are expected to bear in order to serve “the greater good?”

11 Responses to “Power lines: Will W.Va. PSC step up on reliability?”

  1. Dick says:

    The picture provided explain much of the problem. One truck, one employee. Talk to any employee of a electricity provider and they will tell you the same thing. They simply don’t have the people to handle storm damage. I have an aquaintence that has worked 177 hrs in the past 9 days! Not only is that extremely unsafe for him, it’s unsafe for us as well. Not every moment is spent up a pole, he’s driving on our roads too.

    The companies make a big deal out of bringing people from other states. Well, THEY HAVE TO! They don’t have the people here to do the work needed. IF they didn’t bring in workers from out of state, we would be MONTHS without power. They make a big deal of running a helicopter with blades to clear a few limbs. It’s ridiculous!

  2. Patience says:

    It does always come down to, “Follow the money.”

    I did a simple Google search of “Allegheny Energy earnings call O&M” (that’s operations and maintenance). Here are selected segments – with links – from the search results. I’ve put them in chronological order, older first.

    On Feb. 11, 2009, earnings call, Kirk Oliver, senior VP and CFO said, “O&M decreased by approximately $17 million. As expected, generation maintenance was lower due to fewer planned outages. We had anticipated O&M to be flat for the quarter but, with the increased focus on cost control that Paul mentioned earlier, we achieved about a $20 million O&M reduction from our plan.”

    On its Feb. 5, 2010 call with financial analysts, Allegheny Energy president and CEO says, “Third, we focused intently on controlling costs and spending throughout the organization. We succeeded in holding operations and maintenance expenses flat. This is now the fourth year in a row we’ve held O&M flat and we’ve done this while improving most measures of performance and maintaining high marks for customer satisfaction.”

    On Feb.23, 2011, Allegheny Energy didn’t hold an earnings call (because of its impending merger with FirstEnergy), but the company did issue a press release that said, in part, “2010 marks our seventh consecutive year of earnings growth,” said Paul J. Evanson, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Allegheny Energy. “During the year, we again held O&M costs flat, substantially completed our TrAIL transmission line in record time, and charted a new future for Allegheny with our pending merger with FirstEnergy. We look forward to the opportunities created by joining a larger and more diversified energy company.”

    As you can see, company executives continually reassured the investment community that Allegheny was CUTTING its spending on maintaining and operating its lines. A look at the financial statements bears that out.

  3. Bill M says:

    On a related note, here’s a rather lengthy article on the grid’s vulnerability to solar flares. It’s not just Mother Nature that transmission providers have to deal with, though I suppose the sun is part of “Mother Nature”. http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_display.cfm?a_id=2548

  4. Pragmatic Realist says:

    They save money on maintenance, betting on getting by with the bare minimum necessary. When they lose the bet, we pay by sitting in the dark for a week. They keep the saved money in their pockets.

    It is said that Soviet Communism failed because of its internal contradictions and corruptions. American Capitalism is now failing for the same reasons.

  5. margo Wilson says:

    I remmember when AEP used to keep trees cut out of the power lines and would cut the tree and give you a blue spruce tree to replace it because they grow slower and do not get in the power lines.. I have called many times about a neighbors trees in the power lines and they have done nothing.. You have to wait weeks and call many times just to get the street lights repaired when they go out… But they always need more $$ to operate.. What’s up with that???

  6. Bob Kincaid says:

    Good for all who are getting this discussion going. It is a badly needed one. There are two paths ahead of us: one that includes reliable energy and the other that is hopelessly unreliable, late-19th/early 20th century and leads to the unsurprising outcome with which many of us recently dealt (with which some West Virginians are still coping).

    We can do better. The quesiton is whether Applachian Power, et al. WANT us to do better, or simply want to provide bare minimum service and, as Pragmatic Realist notes, leave us to deal with the consequences, whether they come during stifling heat or freezing cold so long, I’ll add, as they can then use the event as a springboard for another request for rate increases.

  7. Steve says:

    Oh, the rate increases will come, and come. The distribution and transmission line right of ways haven’t been cleared for years. The switch to natural gas won’t be on the cheap either. The gas companies are already getting in line for their increases. But when the dust clears and we are paying through the nose for power, we can always say we reduced the conductivity pollution of some stream in southern WV. And that will really make us feel good inside.

  8. Dick says:

    Steve, the rate increases were there when Bush was in the White House and the EPA was in bed with every fossil based energy producer in the nation. We have been “paying through the nose” and will continue “paying through the nose” for power.
    Can you tell me the last time AEP or any other producer of electricity actually lowered the rates? Personally, I can’t think of one.

    Your slur about pollution was really uncalled for and has no relevance.

  9. mayflyguy says:

    Agreed Dick.

    Steve, this article is about the failure of the power companies to maintain their transmission and distribution systems for the sake of short term profit. Are you argueing that the power companies have cut their maintenance budget to compensate for pollution control costs?

  10. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    In fact, ApCo President Charles Patton did say on MetroNews’ Talkline the other day that he wishes they could do more line maintenance, but that they are spending a lot of money [instead] on EPA regulatory compliance.

    I don’t have a link, but if you check the audio of the show from Wednesday, that’s when he was interviewed.


  11. Steve says:

    Dick, Compare our rates with anybody’s for the last twenty or so years. I think you will find ours to have been lower. Why do you think that has been the case, huh?