We are now in the middle of WV’s second major blackout in less than three years. We can see a pattern to AEP’s and FirstEnergy’s responses.
The first thing they do is exaggerate the weather event to bolster their claim that they had no responsibility for the utter collapse of their distribution systems. Here is what senior PSC engineer Jim Ellars said in his testimony to the PSC on the 2009 blackout:
Generally speaking, the smallest amounts of snowfall occurred in the southern counties such as Mingo, Logan, Lincoln, Wayne, and McDowell (4 to 6 inches) as well as the far western counties of Wood, Jackson, and Mason (2 to 4 inches).
Snowfall was heavier in central and eastern WV, but AEP, which serves Mingo and Logan Counties, and its PR people, hit the media with claims that southern WV was hit by a disastrously severe storm. As it turned out, Mingo and Logan Counties, with some of the lightest snowfall of the storm, were exactly the counties where it took AEP the longest to restore power, in some cases over two weeks. Ellars concluded that the snow storm was severe in some areas, but that AEP and Allegheny Energy (since bought out by FirstEnergy) were not prepared for what was a heavy, but by no means unusual, weather event.
Over at StopPATH WV, Keryn does a great job of taking apart FirstEnergy’s attempts at disaster hyperbole in our current situation. The fact is that WV’s power companies have been robbing their maintenance budgets for years, shortchanging the reliability of our WV distribution system.
Prompted by Jim Ellars’ testimony in 2010, the WV PSC, for the first time, is in the process of setting reliability standards for AEP’s and FirstEnergy’s utilities in WV. This is actually very simple. Most states already use three easy-to-track statistical measurements to require power company performance on reliability. There is an active case right now at the PSC to determine the exact standards that the PSC will use to push AEP and FirstEnergy toward improvements in their reliability. Naturally, AEP and FirstEnergy are resisting any system that will force them to improve. Here is the report filed by PSC engineer Donald Walker.
The WV Consumer Advocate Division also filed comments supporting tougher standards. CAD attorney Tony Sade states clearly that the problem is not weather disasters, which are going to happen. The problem is the power companies’ lack of maintenance and preparedness for events we all know are bound to happen.
Of course, 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.