Facebook Twitter

PacifiCorp now faces grilling over outages

SHARE PacifiCorp now faces grilling over outages

Electricity may be up and running for most Wasatch Front residents after a stormy week — but PacifiCorp faces what could prove a more challenging task than what its linemen have been dealing with: repairing the utility's damaged credibility.

At least 130 complaints about PacifiCorp have been fielded by the Utah Public Service Commission in the past week. On Friday that prompted the PSC and the Committee of Consumer Services, the state's utility watchdog, to schedule a meeting for 9 a.m. Tuesday during which regulators will ask company officials what went wrong.

The meeting in the PSC offices at 160 E. 300 South will be open to the public.

Delays in restoring electricity to customers after two major storms have many questioning whether PacifiCorp has the necessary resources and personnel to respond to such crises. PacifiCorp operates as Utah Power in Utah and Idaho and, in turn, is owned internationally by ScottishPower.

A record-breaking winter storm the day after Christmas paralyzed parts of the Salt Lake Valley and, at its height, left 70,000 customers without power. Some homes went without electricity for as long as five days.

A second storm and powerful winds on New Year's Day knocked out power to 14,000 customers.

By late Friday afternoon, about 300 Salt Lake customers were still without electricity. Another 135 Idaho customers also were without power, said Dave Eskelsen, a PacifiCorp spokesman. The power was expected to be fully restored by early today.

Outages between a neighborhood and a substation — a common scenario after last week's storm — are often undetected unless the customer reports the problem to the company, according to Eskelsen.

At the height of the outages, PacifiCorp was receiving more than 5,000 calls an hour. But the company's automated outage management system, used to track power failures, was not working properly and was shut down by Saturday, Eskelsen said. Many customers calling the company were met with busy signals.

Questions raised

PSC spokeswoman Julie Orchard said the commission will question why the automated outage system broke down. In addition, commissioners will ask whether the number of outage crews the company employs is adequate.

Another issue likely to be raised will be the company's tree-trimming efforts. PacifiCorp chief executive Judi Johansen said earlier this week that the company had "ramped up its tree-trimming efforts," carrying a $40 million tree-trimming budget for its six-state area.

In a letter sent this week to the PSC, Salt Lake City Councilman David Buhler — whose power was out for three days — raised the issue of whether the company had sufficiently re-invested in its infrastructure.

"We have some areas where the power seems to go out regularly," Buhler told the Deseret Morning News. "They had some major problems with customer service response. I don't even know if they knew who was out. . . . I've also heard from constituents who have told me they've called and begged (Utah Power) to come and trim their trees, and they can hardly come and get them to do it."

Millcreek resident Richard Drake said legislative and PSC investigations into PacifiCorp's response are warranted.

"There is no question in my mind that preventive maintenance is absolutely a problem with the company," Drake said. "They have actually gotten their maintenance crews down to skeleton crews, so anytime they have a major blackout they have to reach out to all these other states to bring in the crews to do the job because they do not have the manpower, they do not have the expertise, and they do not have the equipment to respond."

A changing system

Eskelsen acknowledges that the company has fewer overall employees and linemen today compared to 20 years ago, but he stresses that the utility is more automated.

"This system is very much different than it was in 1984," he said. "It does require fewer employees, and we don't think that this particular issue is related at all to the level of infrastructure investment, which quite frankly has been substantial the last five years of ScottishPower's administration of the company."

In last week's storm the company marshaled crews from Oregon, Washington and Idaho — a total of 163 linemen, 100 tree-trimming personnel and 83 damage assessors and a host of support and equipment personnel.

A similar snowstorm in 1984 left roughly 100,000 customers without electricity.

Eskelsen denies reports that fewer personnel were on hand during the week's storms compared with the one in 1984.

"You have line crews, but you also have meter readers, estimators, engineers, people with technical expertise who also go out into the field and help the crews identify areas of damage," Eskelsen said. "If you look at the personnel involved in this particular event, there were easily 500 people working this outage. There weren't 500 linemen in Salt Lake in 1984."

In addition, Eskelsen said, the 1984 storm affected a much smaller geographic area, disrupting major lines, as opposed to last week's storm, which mainly affected individual house lines.

"You could get much bigger chunks of customers restored by getting those main feeders back in service," Eskelsen said. "They probably had a 20-square-mile area to work in 1984, and this storm in 2003 was the entire Wasatch Front. That's easily 400 square miles. This is a much bigger storm."

E-mail: danderton@desnews.com