The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission held the first of three scheduled hearings this Monday to get feedback on power outage response following February’s major ice storm that left over 968,000 customers without power.
“We want [PECO Energy Company] to hear from you," said PUC Deputy Director, Darren Gill, at the forum in Montgomery County Community College’s Advanced Technology Center. “We want to hear from you.”
While some Pennsylvania residents commended the commission for their post-storm efforts at the public meeting, others voiced frustration over delays in power restoration, communication errors, overvoltage issues and alleged flaws in tree trimming and road clearing practices.
“It just didn’t seem that they had their ducks in a row” said resident Lisa Speckle of messages that falsely informed customers that their power had been restored.
Others questioned the logic of routinely trimming trees instead of removing them throughout the year, which many claimed contributed to delays in response time.
“It seems to me that there’s a self-perpetuating business of trimming the trees and the brush back from the power lines,” said community member Steven Kingsdorf. “We had trees down everywhere that where intermixed with power lines.”
“Those two [tree trimming and road clearing] are clearly issues we’ve heard from the public, the legislature and our own review” said the Chairman. “It’s a process we’re working on. It’s still not perfect but we had much better communication getting the roads open [this time around].”
Joseph Martin though, a contractor in attendance not affiliated with either party, disagreed that a lack of tree removal was the issue.
“I know from 20 years of working in the field that everybody likes their trees” said Martin. He went on to thank the response teams for their efforts under extreme time pressure.
“I’d like to commend PECO in their efforts organizing crew from all over the country and Canada” he said.
Representative Kate Harper of Montgomery County’s 61st district, the sole elected official in attendance, spoke of the need to inform the public of emergency response protocol.
“What I learned…is that people do not know what to do in an outage” she said. “When you call in that helps PECO pinpoint the problem but people don’t know that.”
According to PECO officials, Winter Storm Nica was the second most damaging storm in the company’s history, behind Super Storm Sandy. It created half an inch of ice accumulation that added up to 500 pounds to lines and equipment.
To deal with the severity of the storm PUC and PECO began preparations on February 3rd, two full days prior to the storm, and by week’s end had raised their employee count from 2,700 to 6,800.
Together they replaced 2,318 cross arms, 14,330 fuses, 520 poles, 288 transformers and 95 miles of cable. They also cleared vegetation and electric equipment from 885 roads.
“We understand that some of them went beyond the duration period that caused a lot of frustration and anxiety” said Powelson.
Officials from the two bodies announced that they plan to generate a report from supplemental data they are collecting on the response, along with the input received at these three public hearings.
“We hope to have our report to the commissioners by the middle of April” said Darren Gill. He anticipates releasing the information to the public in late spring.
They are also currently working on an after action report with Pennsylvania’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The next public hearing will be held this Wednesday at the Tredyffrin Township Building in Chester County at 6:30 PM. The timing and location for the third has yet to be determined.