State regulators will meet on Wednesday to review American Electric Power’s decision to cut electric service to 230,000 customers during a heat wave in June to avoid a larger-scale blackout.
A June 13 storm damaged three transmission lines – high-voltage wires carrying power from power plants to transformers before it reaches customers – according to the company. An unknown number of other Columbus lines “were unexpectedly taken out of service” the following day, a spokesperson for the AEP said.
After the storm, a heat wave and high humidity set in. The demand for electricity exceeded the supply that the fewer transmission lines could carry, threatening to overload them and cause a much larger blackout.
AEP – under the direction of PJM, which operates the 13-state power grid – decreed “forced emergency outages” on June 14 at substations supplied by the overloaded lines, the company said. Most residents regained power on June 16, but some remained without power until the following day.
The company says it had no discretion over who should lose power, but was at the mercy of faulty power lines. The NAACP and other organizations and politicians questioned the company on this point. Others criticized the company for not warning customers in advance.
“Customers have not been notified,” AEP spokesman Scott Blake said. “There just wasn’t enough time to do it and keep the network running.”
Data from the Columbus Public Health Department shows an increase in ER visits for heat-related illnesses during the blackout. It is not known if these people had lost power, and a CPH spokeswoman said no further information was available.
Blake said the AEP was not qualified to say whether there was a link between heat illness hospital visits and power outages and noted that the correlation did not necessarily imply a causal link.
Since the blackout, AEP has donated $1.5 million to nonprofits to help affected customers. This averages out to approximately $6.50 per impacted customer
At Impact Community Action, a Columbus nonprofit that helps Ohioans pay and reduce their energy bills, staff handed out 1,000 Kroger gift cards worth $250 to cover the cost of spoiled food for affected residents. Photos taken outside show people wrapping around the block in the scorching heat to queue for the limited supply.
“We had people going out the night before and spending the night on the street,” said Jennifer Wood, a spokesperson for the organization.
The Urban Institute of Columbus distributed $750,000 in AEP funds, prioritizing seniors and those whose medications expired in the refrigerator. The organization closed its online application portal after receiving more than 3,000 requests for million-dollar aid in about 36 hours. It eventually served 2,622 people for a maximum of $300.
“We just couldn’t take care of everyone,” the organization’s associate vice president, Jeaneen Hooks, said of the decision to shut down the app portal. “It meant first come, first served.”
The Franklin County Dog Shelter and Adoption Center was among those who lost power. In a Facebook post, he asked residents to donate ice cream, frozen peanut butter treats and kiddie pools to keep dogs cool. A spokesperson could not be reached to follow up.
During the blackout, a 24-year-old woman was shot and killed at a community center which was a designated cooling area for those who lost power. The Columbus Dispatch reports that an 18-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy were also injured.
At a hearing last month, the state’s top industry regulator – Ohio Public Utilities Commission Chairwoman Jennifer French – promised an after-action report to see how similar outages can be avoided. in the future.
“These outages have caused not only inconvenience, but also serious problems for residents and businesses in the affected areas,” she said. “We understand these issues and hope to see power restored for all as soon as possible.”
Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statement last month that avoided any criticism of the AEP, but posed a question that came up in several interviews for this report: why did some neighborhoods lose power when others haven’t?
The Columbus NAACP issued a statement implying skepticism of AEP’s assertion that it had no control over who lost power. He noted that most areas without electricity were in the “urban community,” indicating a bias given the increased rate of residents enrolled in a state-funded program that subsidizes their home heating bills.
Democrats in the state legislature wrote the AEP a letter asking for answers about the blackout and related issues. They said a more in-depth account of events is warranted.
“We find it troubling that AEP has no issues with customer notifications when bills are due, but when customers are faced with historic heat, limited resources and great needs, there seems to be communication. limited or non-existent on planned outages that impact the health, safety and welfare of customers,” they wrote.
Is the AEP guilty?
Others wondered how the AEP had prepared for the heat wave. Utility companies closely monitor the weather to predict electricity demand. PJM issued hot weather alerts on the mornings of June 12 and June 13.
PJM issued the first of several warnings about the potential for overloaded lines and the need to shed electrical load starting at 10:55 a.m. on June 13, more than 24 hours before the first outage. PJM issued seven more warnings until it finally began issuing directions to dispose of the electric charge at 2 p.m. on June 14, according to a review of PJM’s emergency procedures displays.
The company will likely face questions about what steps, if any, it has taken to reduce customer demand for electricity during this time.
The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, a state watchdog representing the energy interests of residential customers, called on PUCO to launch an “investigation” into the power outages, noting that regulators did not go so far as to present committed only to an “examination”. The OCC asked regulators to determine whether AEP was negligent and therefore liable for the damages.
Ashley Brown, former PUCO commissioner and current executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, said the AEP should have taken long-term measures before the heat wave that could have reduced the net amount of electricity used at a time. given. time.
For example, he said some utilities offer commercial or industrial users discounted electricity prices through “interruptible rate contracts.” In return, the utility reserves the right to order heavy users to shut down during times of unusual grid stress.
Additionally, utilities could require (or design programs to essentially require) customers to turn down or turn down their air conditioners – typically the largest energy expense for residential customers. Some utilities nationwide have developed programs to cycle customers’ water heaters and air conditioners, so fewer of them are using them at the same time.
“Ohio is in a pretty lonely country not to do that stuff,” he said. “It won’t prevent weather problems from occurring, but the idea of dealing with this entirely on the supply side is more than primitive. It’s so outdated.
Brown also pointed to the AEP-backed House Bill 6 of 2019 as an indirect cause of the outage. The legislation is at the center of an independent criminal investigation into public corruption.
Among other provisions, the legislation gutted Ohio’s energy efficiency resource standards. The idea was for utilities to administer programs, funded by customers, to reduce their customers’ annual energy consumption through weather protection, more efficient appliances and the like. Brown said net reductions in overall power demand could have alleviated stress on transmission lines.
However, AEP and another energy expert disputed this. Howard Petricoff teaches energy and utility law at Capital University. He compared the criticism to blaming a big piece of chocolate cake for the weight gain. It wasn’t the piece of cake that caused the weight gain – it was the sustained diet. He suggested the company consider infrastructure investments.
The AEP made similar remarks.
“The amount of power reduction needed to relieve stress on the impacted lines on Tuesday and Wednesday exceeded the heavy end-user load in those areas,” Blake said. “Reducing power to other areas of the city that were not served by these specific transmission lines would have had no impact on the outage.”
The PUCO is due to meet Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. The hearing will be simplified here.
Follow the OCJ journalist Jake Zuckerman on Twitter.
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