Utility officials pleased with response to Irene despite some difficulties
Say customer service could use improvement
By Caleb Taylor | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — The majority of Pennsylvanians who lost power because of Hurricane Irene in late August had the lights back on within 72 hours.
But communication breakdowns, technical problems and rural terrain prevented utility companies from getting all power restored in a timely manner, company utility executives told the state Public Utility Commission, or PUC, on Wednesday.
PUC officials said overall the utilities' response to storm was effective, and they are not intending to impose additional regulations at this time.
“It is the 5 (percent) to 10 percent of customers that have had an extended outage … and figuring out how to get these customers back online more efficiently and restoring power as quickly as we possibly can, (that) would be a great lesson learned,” said John Coleman, vice chairman of PUC, a state agency that balances the needs of consumers with the oversight of utility companies and requires these companies to file annual public reports on their performance, including power outages.
For those customers who were without power for an extended period, it was a frustrating experience.
Peter Antonio, owner of Mountainhome Diner in Monroe County, waited five days for power to be restored after the storm. Aside from a week's worth of lost business, Antonio threw out $3,000 in spoiled food.
“It wasn’t good. I think they should have done much better,” Antonio said of PPL Electric Utility's response to the storm. PPL is a utility company that serves 1.4 million customers in northeast and central Pennsylvania.
He said a downed tree across the street from his establishment was the reason for power being out.
“It was right on the road, and every day trucks were driving past it,” Antonio said.
Carl Segneri, PPL vice president of distribution operations, acknowledged the frustrations of customers like Antonio but said those instances were less common after Hurricane Irene than other major storms in the past.
About 428,000 PPL customers experienced power outages from Hurricane Irene. Power was restored to 67 percent of those customers within 24 hours and 94 percent in 72 hours, he said. PPL had outages in all 29 counties it serves.
The most widespread problem reported by the utility companies Wednesday was technical issues that prevented them from accurately relaying information to customers about outages and restorations.
According to PUC, total power outages from Hurricane Irene reached a peak at 760,000. By Aug. 31, 92 percent of those customers had power restored. More than 1.3 million customers lost power at some point between Aug. 27 and Sept. 6, until all customers’ power was restored.
Segneri said PPL's automated information system shut down after about 800,000 customer calls on Aug. 28 and is one area where the utility company needs to improve.
“Customers understand the outages,” said Segneri. “They just want to know what is going on. That’s something we know we can do better and must do better.
Segneri said PPL is working with vendors to increase the capacity of the system in preparation for future storms.
Other utility companies reported similar problems communicating with customers.
Nicholas Austin, director of operations services for Metropolitan Edison, or Met-Ed, a utility company that has approximately 625,000 customers, said Met-Ed needs to create a more user-friendly version of its website for outage information.
Met-Ed had 224,735 customers without power from Hurricane Irene, including more than 140,000 at the peak of the outage.
Representatives from the six electric utility companies that operate in the eastern part of the state were on hand for Wednesday’s meeting.