Outage outrage — Lessons from the 'Derecho' Storm
For the more than 5 million customers who saw their power wiped out by the so-called “derecho” storm that swept across six states in the upper Midwest and Mid-Atlantic U.S. June 29, there was little if anything energy and telecommunications companies did to minimize the damage, the 22-person death toll and political fallout.
Like it or not, that’s the takeaway that seems unavoidable from weather reports, media assessments, press releases and statements by public officials now that all of those customers have had their services restored from the derecho’s 80+ mph winds, rain and hail amid the sweltering 100+ degree temperatures.
Ninety minutes before the storm hit the Washington area (see satellite image, right), the National Weather Service forecast severe thunderstorms with “significant wind damage.” Even so, the Weather Service’s Katie Garrett told CBS News even the experts were impressed by how fast the derecho moved.
So it appeared all the major players — utilities included — did not acknowledge the storm’s potential threat as it gained momentum from the sweltering heat.
Here’s one take by The Washington Post July 3.
Montgomery County, MD residents subscribing to a text- and email-based emergency alert system did not receive any such alert — if any alert was even issued. Montgomery County officials did not respond to an email inquiring about this.
Derechos are common in the Midwest, but once every four summers, one derecho statistically makes it to the Midwest powered by Gulf Stream winds.
“What happens is you have a wall of wind really coming in ahead of the thunder through the lightning and the heavy rain,” the Weather Service’s Garrett said.
Ken Barker, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power Company, explained to the media “This was, in our 100 year history, the largest non-hurricane storm we’ve had.” With a slow moving hurricane, Barker said, there are days to prepare. But with a derecho, by the time you know it’s coming, it’s too late to do much more than take cover.
“In my 24 years with BGE,” said Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) Customer Operations Vice President Jeannette M. Mills — and this has been confirmed by my colleagues with sometimes decades more service — no storm has ever combined this magnitude of damage with its suddenness.” See her entire July 8 letter to customers here.
No doubt some of these types of statements are designed at least in part to provide political cover. Utilities such as Pepco, which serves Washington, DC and two adjacent Maryland counties, has been the butt of jokes and harsh critiques by local and state officials for years over alleged neglect of its electric infrastructure.
Pepco has applied for a rate increase and will need to sharpen its defenses at a July 19 public hearing in before officials in Montgomery County, MD.
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who by his numerous trips out of state has signaled national political ambitions, used the storm to hammer Pepco over its pace of restoration efforts. While that might have comforted some without power to know the state’s top public official was ‘on the case.’
“Nobody will have their boot further up Pepco’s backside than I will to make sure we get there.” O’Malley said after Pepco indicated it might be a week before power is restored to all customers.
After searching far and wide, it wasn’t clear what, if anything, O’Malley’s administration did that materially facilitated restoration efforts.
O’Malley’s tactics did not go unnoticed. Gregg Easterbrook, a Pepco customer and Maryland resident who writes for The Atlantic, had this to say:
“O’Malley might have proved himself with White House-level competence by dealing with Pepco. Instead, he has done nothing, while gallivanting around the nation promoting himself. Sunday, with a power crisis at home, the governor was more interested in engaging in self-promotion on Face the Nation. O’Malley’s abysmal performance in his own state makes his claim to national leadership seem a practical joke.” Read his entire post on the “politics of electricity” here.
What each of these and other utilities did seem to do well:
1. get the facts out — fast;
2. have an articulate, knowledgeable senior official available to the media 24/7;
3. manage expectations; and
4. coordinate with emergency response personnel.
Pepco embedded communications personnel into state and local emergency management agencies (EMA) and emergency operations center to facilitate communications and collaborate on setting priorities for restoring critical public health and safety facilities.
Pepco spokeswoman Courtney Nogas told TheEnergyFix that it activated an “emergency incident response plan early on Friday, June 29.” She did not say how early. That meant holding over line crews, securing local contractors, activating its response personnel and reviewing material inventories.
“Although no amount of preparation can prevent catastrophic damage from windstorms such as the one that struck us last Friday, effective collaboration between utilities and the EMA is critical for being able to respond as effectively as possible,” said Chris Geldart, District of Columbia Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
Pepco might have been worked at cross purposes, at least in Montgomery County, MD where I reside. After promising to contact customers as soon as there service was restored at the phone number of their choice, I did not receive said notification until more than two days after the fact.
As a career-long advocate for cleaner, safer and more secure energy solutions, Jim creates and helps execute digital campaigns for a variety of trade association/NGO, government agency, smart grid, renewable energy and utility clients through Pierobon & Partners. He provides updates on these columns at TheEnergyFix.com. Among other positions, he has co-managed the energy and environmental ...
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