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PacifiCorp is in for a grilling on outages

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PacifiCorp lineman Scott Reed from Medford, Ore., works to restore power in East Millcreek on Dec. 28.

PacifiCorp lineman Scott Reed from Medford, Ore., works to restore power in East Millcreek on Dec. 28.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

PacifiCorp appears before state regulators today to respond to complaints over the utility's handling of snowstorm induced power outages that affected tens of thousands of homes along the Wasatch Front.

The hearing, which is open to the public, will start at 9 a.m. in the Public Service Commission offices at 160 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City.

Several PacifiCorp executives are expected to attend the meeting. Amanda Nelson, PacifiCorp's vice president of customer services, and Bob Moir, senior vice president of distribution, will be the main presenters for the company.

Tonight, Utah Power officials will also face questions from the Salt Lake City Council.

City Councilman Dave Buhler, whose power was out for three days following the day-after-Christmas storm, sent a letter to Utah Power demanding answers.

"We have some areas where the power seems to go out regularly," Buhler said last week. "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."

The commission has fielded more than 100 complaints over the past couple weeks concerning delays in restoring electricity. At the height of the first outage, which occurred the day after Christmas, roughly 70,000 people were without electricity, some for as long as five days. A second winter storm on New Year's Day affected another 14,000 homes and businesses.

As power was restored to some homes it was offset by outages to others.

PacifiCorp chief executive Judi Johansen flew into Salt Lake City from Portland four days after Christmas to address the emergency.

Johansen acknowledged that the company's automated outage system, used to track power failures, malfunctioned.

"This is not an instance of equipment failure," Johansen told members of the media. "This is an instance where Mother Nature has come in and dumped some extremely wet snow on our power grid and has caused these problems."

The total number of customers affected by the outages exceeds 84,000 customers, said Dave Eskelsen, a PacifiCorp spokesman. An exact number of homes that were affected by the outages is still being determined by the company.

Roger Ball, administrative secretary of the Committee of Consumer Services, which represents residential ratepayers before the commission, said the first question he wants answered is what went wrong with the company's tree-trimming program.

The company said it spends $40 million on tree-trimming in its six-state area.

"We are paying to have the trees trimmed," Ball said. "To the extent that a branch falls on a line and takes the line out of service, clearly we didn't get value for money. To the extent that 70,000 customers were taken out of service, most of them from what I've read as a result of branches falling on lines, this is a calamitous failure."

A 2001 snowstorm left 116,000 Utah customers without power following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Moir and Nelson told regulators then that the company handled the storm's aftermath well, thanks in part to trimming 127,817 trees from January to November.

"The damage could have been worse," Moir told regulators in 2001, "if the trimming program hadn't been in place and up-to-date."

One ratepayer blames not just the utility for its slow response.

"The Legislature is culpable for allowing a major monopoly utility to function the way they are in this state," said Millcreek resident Richard Drake, whose power was unaffected by the storms but whose neighbors went without electricity for up to four days. "The company continues to put in place equipment that is inferior, undercapitalizing the whole network."

Contributing: Brady Snyder

E-MAIL: danderton@desnews.com