Coal Tattoo

W.Va. PSC response to superstorms: ‘Nothing new’

West Virginia’s Public Service Commission has issued a ruling in its big investigation of power outages during last year’s “derecho” storm, and the outcome is fairly predictable. As reported in today’s Gazette:

The state Public Service Commission on Wednesday ordered all West Virginia electric companies to propose how to help keep trees and other vegetation from affecting rights-of-way, in an effort meant to lessen the impact of future severe storms on customers.

Within six months, each company has been asked to submit a petition that proposes its own comprehensive rights-of-way tree-trimming program, which must cover all distribution and transmission lines. Each company also is expected to tell the PSC how long it would take to accomplish what they proposed in their tree-trimming program.

Over on his always informative blog, The Power Line, Bill Howley’s reaction was that this is really “nothing new.” Bill summarized the PSC order:

— It’s the trees.

— Cut the trees.

— Your rates are going up.

— We will ignore any investment to really make WV’s electrical system more reliable.

You can read the ruling yourself here. One of the more interesting things here is to look at the way the PSC described public comments during this investigation. The commission said:

Much of the public comment filed in this investigation following the summer derecho and Hurricane Sandy has focused on the adequacy of right-of-way maintenance along electric and telephone utility distribution lines. Many of public comments at the hearing or other filed written comments contended that the utilities should perform rightof- way tree trimming and brush control more frequently and thoroughly to lessen the extent and duration of storm-related outages.

Much of the public comment? Many of the public comments? Perhaps … but certainly not all. Take the hearing that commissioners held here in Charleston, for example. There’s a transcript you can read here. There were two speakers. Neither of them talked about trees, or clearing utility line right of ways.

One of the speakers was Bill Howley, who explained his family’s decision — because of a commitment to renewable power and because of his local utility’s history of reliability problems — put it in the context of how West Virginia might rework its system to be more reliable:

With a few exceptions, West Virginia and its centralized electric power industry has very little experience or expertise with the most reliable electrical system technologies available today. Decentralized power generation organized around micro grid distribution structures provides for real reliability.

Bill noted that the PSC took a positive step in enacting West Virginia’s first-ever reliability standards for electric utilities, and urged commissioners to build on that:

The Commission should initiate a new case to study appropriate micro grid technologies and strategies for using micro grids in West Virginia to strengthen critical services during power company failures. You can remain in the cycle of distribution system decay and emergency response, or you can begin building real reliability into West Virginia’s electrical system. West Virginia ratepayers already face rising rates from emergency cost recover and increased maintenance costs. Why not invest in real change that pays dividends in real reliability?

The other speaker at the Charleston hearing was Robin Wilson of Roane County. He suggested that perhaps it’s time for West Virginia to think about what is causing or contributing to major storms and power outages:

By becoming a carbon neutral society, we can actually prevent anything before it happens. I think that that should be one of the things that are considered in this. I know it’s not the usual kind of consideration, but those industries which now externalize the cost of carbon emission should pay a carbon tax and thus we could reduce the likelihood of storms getting worse.

I like market systems but if companies are externalizing the cost of carbon – which they are in terms of our higher utility bills. Because obviously the cleanup from the storms is going to come to us as ratepayers. And it also comes to us in terms of higher food costs and in higher taxes to pay for FEMA’s relief efforts. So I think that we, consumers, are now paying the bill that the carbon — the fossil fuel industry is externalizing. So I’m for rationalizing markets, making markets fair.

It seems like it is a difficult issue in West Virginia because coal is a powerful influence. But on the other hand, if we don’t look at the issue I think that we’re not doing ourselves a favor. This is an issue we have to face straight on.