By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – Utility companies from across Pennsylvania on Thursday said lessons learned from major storms in 2011 helped them prepare for the record-setting damage and power outages wrought by “Superstorm Sandy.”
The storm left 1.8 million Pennsylvania electric customers without power when it hit Oct. 29. Although some of those customers were still without power a week later, the state Public Utility Commission generally praised the electric companies’ response. Members of the commission said the utilities communicated well with customers and prepared for the storm by bringing in crews and supplies from out-of-state.
Robert Powelson, chairman of the PUC, said he gave utility companies grades ranging from “B-plus” through “D,” but he did not want to point out flaws.
“A storm of this magnitude requires a well-coordinated response, which is what I feel occurred in Pennsylvania,” said Powelson. He said lessons learned from the response to Hurricanes Irene and Lee in 2011 helped workers prepare for Sandy. The goal of the meeting was to learn about potential improvements.
One after the next, officials from the utility companies described the historic nature of the storm and praised their crews for responding quickly and maintaining communication with customers throughout the event.
“This was the worst storm in our company’s history,” said David Bonenberger, vice president of distribution operations for PPL Electric Utilities, which operates in central and eastern Pennsylvania.
He said PPL brought in extra crews from 16 states with office staff working around-the-clock in the days after the storm. Temporary cities with food, water and lodging for utility crews was established at several locations, including Dorney Park, an amusement park outside Allentown, Bonenberger said.
For the first time, many of the companies aggressively used social media to warn customers of the pending storm, to take reports of outages and to inform people about expected restoration times.
Utilities also expanded their phone lines, having learned from communication troubles after two major storms in the summer of 2011.
But room for improvement remains — particularly when it comes to customers’ estimated time of restoration, known as “ETR.”
Commissioner John Coleman said customers reported receiving “ETRs” that were sometimes changed and extended.
“If you are a customer who is without power and you are three days, four days into an outage, the accuracy of an ETR is priceless, absolutely priceless,” Coleman said. “That’s an area that keeps coming back to us as an area of improvement.”
“I think all utilities across the country face the same challenge,” said Bonenberger. “This is an area that we can all improve on.”
Commissioner James Cawley asked whether more lines could be installed underground to keep them from being damaged during major storms.
David McDonald, president of West Penn Power Co., said it’s possible, but retrofitting power lines to be placed underground costs about $1 million per mile and doubles the average restoration time when repairs are needed.
As to why some customers were left without power for days after the storms, the companies said they targeted the largest swaths of outages first, leaving those in smaller blocks waiting.
Those groups are often the most difficult to reach, said Frank Peverly, vice president of operations for Pike County Light & Power Co.
Overall, more than 9 million customers across the East Coast lost power during the storm. More than 90 percent of Pennsylvania outages were restored by Nov. 3, according to the PUC.
No time was allotted for public comment Thursday, but not all customers said the companies did an effective job .
Daniel Brenek, a resident of Carbon County, told PA Independent via Facebook that he witnessed four PPL crews waiting in a school parking lot for more than four hours on the day after the storm.
He said the crews told him they were waiting for permits before moving on to the next job; Brenek said he thought they were waiting for overtime pay to kick in.
Bonenberger acknowledged that PPL can improve its workforce management during a major weather event such as Sandy. The company tripled the size of its workforce in the response to the storm with the out-of-state crews.
Other customers said the utility companies did a good job, considering the size of the storm and the number of outages.
“There were some people that suffered without power longer than others, but were warned to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” said Daniel Urban, a resident of Schuylkill County.
The storm hit Pennsylvania with hurricane-force winds, with most of the damage focused in the Philadelphia suburbs in the southeast, the Lehigh Valley and Wayne, Monroe and Pike counties in the northeast corner.
Public officials said Thursday – as they had during the storm – that Pennsylvania managed to dodge the worst of the storm because it isn’t susceptible to storm surge, which flooded coastal New York and New Jersey as the storm came ashore off the Atlantic Ocean.
Contact Boehm at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]