Lower electric bills, longer power outages
Isabel's local winds may have uncovered real cost of deregulation

Dispatch/Sunday News, 9/28/03

Hurricane Isabel was not the most powerful storm ever to hit York County.

It may have felt like it, though.

At the peak of the storm early Sept. 19, there were 80,000 homes and businesses in York County -- more than half -- without power.

It took six days to get electricity flowing to everybody, and it was the most widespread and longest lasting outage ever in York County, according to local power companies Met-Ed and PPL.

While power company officials blame the outages on the weather, others say it's the utilities themselves that must shoulder some of the blame.

Watchdog groups and labor unions say Pennsylvania power companies have for several years been cutting back on jobs and maintenance of their distribution systems -- and since the electric deregulation of the mid-1990s, the problem has intensified.

This, they say, resulted in more trees coming down and more people without power -- and at the same time, repairs were slower.

"Unfortunately a storm like this highlights the effects of what utilities have been doing and not doing in the last six or seven years," said Scott Rubin, an attorney and consultant from Selinsgrove who works with utility-worker unions.

"Utilities have cut back drastically on preventive maintenance, and they've also greatly reduced the number of trained line crews they have available."

Past storms: The scope of the power outages is striking. As many as 7 million homes along the Atlantic Coast lost electric service to Isabel, which came ashore with winds of about 100 mph. But those winds dropped to 70 mph or less by the time the storm left North Carolina.

By the time the storm reached York County, the strongest wind recorded was only 44 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Wind speeds of 55 mph and 58 mph were recorded in Lancaster and Harrisburg, respectively. Winds like these can be damaging, but are far below hurricane strength, 73 mph.

In contrast, Hurricane Andrew, packing winds in excess of 160 mph, cut power to about 675,000 customers in 1992. Even Hurricane Hugo, which maintained winds of 100 mph as far inland as Charlotte, N.C., in 1989, severed power to just 1.5 million customers.

Neither Andrew nor Hugo made it here, although 1999's Hurricane Floyd knocked out power to 6,000 local customers.

But hurricane-force winds are so rare in central Pennsylvania you have to look back to Hurricane Hazel in 1954 to find a "wind event" comparable to Isabel, said Dave Ondrejik, a meteorologist with the weather service's State College office.

During that October storm, 80 mph winds knocked down half of Metropolitan Edison's lines in York County, cutting power to half the county's residents. But power was restored to most by the next day, according to contemporary news accounts, though the county's population was much smaller and more centralized in 1954 than today.

Wet ground: As the sun rose on the morning after Isabel, Met-Ed faced a daunting task.

Among the 11,000 "trouble locations" in York, Adams, Lebanon and Berks counties it had to confront were 5,000 cases of wires down. More than 60 percent of its 500,000 customers in the four-county area were in the dark. Most of the problems were caused by trees or branches blown onto lines or poles knocked down.

By Sunday, York County had the highest concentration of customers in the dark in the state.

"You can be assured this is one of the worst, if not the worst, storms in our history," said Scott Surgeoner, a spokesman for FirstEnergy, the Ohio-based parent company of Met-Ed. "We're really certain it will go down as the worst in the York area."

Met-Ed, which changed its name to GPU Energy in 1996, was acquired by FirstEnergy, the nation's fourth-largest energy supplier, in 2000. The name was changed back to Met-Ed last year.

Ondrejik said the wet ground conditions were a factor in the number of trees down. Before Isabel, York was already nearly at the average rainfall for September and more than 10 inches above normal for the year. The wet ground was less able to hold down the trunks of trees.

Another problem was trees still had their leaves, which acted like sails, catching the wind and putting more stress on the trunks during the storm, he said.

Surgeoner said there were 645 crews working to restore service in the days after the storm, including the 129 crews based in Pennsylvania and crews brought it from as far as Ohio and Canada.

"A third of the crews we had in Met-Ed were down in the York area restoring service to the 80,000 who lost service during Isabel," he said.

But critics say part of the problem is utilities aren't trimming trees as much as they used to.

Fewer employees: Ralph Lentz is president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 777, which represents local Met-Ed and Adams Electric employees, as well as workers for Reliant Energy and at Three Mile Island.

He said Met-Ed has been cutting back on its local work force since the mid-1970s. In 1993, he said, Met-Ed had around 100 line workers based here. Today there are around 45, he said.

The customers out of service after Isabel could have been back on twice as fast if they had the old number of line workers, Lentz said.

Michael Gabner, the union's business manager, said Met-Ed's reliance on bringing outside workers ensures the first day of any outage will prolong outages.

"Usually if you have a one-night storm come through and do damage, there's nobody available to come help immediately," he said. And when it is a hurricane, nobody knows the exact path, so other areas are reluctant to give up their crews before it hits.

Lentz and others blame electric deregulation.

"You can't blame that just on GPU and FirstEnergy. Almost every utility cut back the way they did," Lentz said.

In 1996, Pennsylvania became one of the first states to deregulate the electric industry, following the lead of Congress, which passed such legislation in 1992. The goal was to encourage competition and drive down the price of power.

But with deregulation, restrictions on utilities' investments in other states and countries were lifted, and a cap was placed on rates. The state maintained oversight of transmission and distribution systems.

Rates have dropped slightly, the average customer paying 20 percent less in 2001 than 1996, according to the citizen-action group PennFuture.

But, Rubin argues, the secondary effects of deregulation have hurt the utilities' preparation and ability to respond to storms like Isabel.

Longer outages: Rubin in 2001 did a study, in conjunction with the Keystone Research Center, that compared Pennsylvania's electric utilities before and after deregulation.

Between 1994 and 1999, 3,400 electric utility workers, or about 13 percent, lost their jobs, the study found. The state's major electric utilities employed 25,600 in 1994 and 22,200 in 1999. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry estimates there will be 17,930 such employees by 2008.

During the same study period, the average length of customer outages, except during major storms, increased from 110 to 144 minutes -- a 30 percent increase. And annual complaints to the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission rose from 1,822 to 4,136.

Rubin said the rate cap put into effect during deregulation discouraged utilities from investing in improving their systems here.

"Utilities have been given an incentive to invest somewhere else. They haven't been given the incentive to invest in their local delivery systems and in preventive maintenance," he said.

Maintenance work like replacing faulty or old poles and clearing trees from power lines -- both of which can cause problems during storms -- has suffered, he said.

The study said the utilities increased their profits by 50 percent but invested just 5 percent of their profits into their operations here.

"Deregulation was a success in flattening electric rates, but it gave utilities an opportunity to drastically cut staff and service and we're paying for that now," said Eric Epstein, a consumer energy activist. "When you have a storm of this scale, you need workers to restore service to the customers. You just don't have the numbers you used to have."

Power problems: Last summer, the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, made up of members of the state House and Senate, issued a report urging the PUC to more closely monitor utilities for power outages.

GPU's tree trimming program, the report stated, was lagging. The company from 1995 to 1997 tripled the miles of lines trimmed while reducing the cost per mile by 46 percent. In the same period, "preventable tree-related outages" went up by a third and length of disruption went up by 23 percent.

In 2001, the company's three-year average of tree-related outages was 1,735, up from 1,540 in 1998-2000.

Surgeoner, the FirstEnergy spokesman, said the company has made a commitment to tree trimming, and went from 15 full-time trimmers last year to 45 this year.

"Trees are the major source of outages in Pennsylvania, statistics indicate," he said. And he said the company inspects all lines every four years instead of every five, as GPU did.

No cuts in line: Surgeoner said while FirstEnergy made cuts when it took over GPU in 2000, none were among its line workers. He said the company has increased the amount it invests in its distribution network and has cut its average length of outages from 148 minutes to 116 minutes.

He defended the company's policy of relying on outside crews in storms. Met-Ed could not keep that many crews on hand locally.

"Three hundred and sixty days of the year they'll be sitting around with nothing to do," he said.

The company, he said, is still reviewing its response to Isabel. One area they are looking at is cooperation with local emergency officials, some of whom criticized the company for not having a representative in their emergency operations center and being out of communication during the height of the storm.

"Clearly we will work with the emergency management officials to meet their expectations. If we did not meet their expectations, we will sit down with them and work that out," he said.

Upcoming debate: Meanwhile, not everyone agrees the utilities share the blame for the outages.

John Hanger is president of PennFuture, which works to "protect Pennsylvania's environment and improve its economy." He has seen no evidence the utilities could have done any better.

"Anybody who expects every last customer to be reconnected in two days when you have this many customers down is unreasonable," he said.

Claims that deregulation exacerbated the problem, he said, are "unfortunate exaggeration for political purposes."

"I would encourage the PUC to look at the performance of Met-Ed in this storm. I think it's probably as good or better than in the past," Hanger said.

But State Rep. Bruce Smith, R-Dillsburg, also wants to see the PUC take up the issue.

"In all my years of public service, I've never had this many of my constituents out of electricity for an extended period," Smith said. "I am suspicious and I hope they prepared adequately and I want to learn more from the PUC and I want to hear Met-Ed's side of the story."

PUC spokesman Eric Levis said Friday the commission will decide whether or not to investigate the utilities' performance in the storm after they submit their outage reports this week.

As of Tuesday, the most recent information he could provide last week, 36 Met-Ed customers had filed complaints with the PUC, as had 24 PPL customers and 26 PECO customers.

Underground: Arguments of deregulation aside, some wonder why the utilities don't just put their lines underground.

But don't expect that to happen anytime soon.

"After big storms, some people always say, 'If the lines were underground, we wouldn't have these problems,' " said Michael Hyland, vice president of engineering services for the American Public Power Association. "They don't understand that you can't have a gold-plated system of everything put underground unless you want your rates to increase rapidly."

Hyland said most Americans demand relatively cheap electricity and wouldn't accept a big rate increase for that sort of retrofit. And he noted that being underground doesn't guarantee service, since lightning, flooding or landslides can still damage lines, and that repairs to underground circuits are often harder and more costly, too.

Surgeoner said Met-Ed has not considered putting its lines underground, since it costs from six to eight times what above-ground lines cost.

Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this report.