Coal Tattoo

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?”