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PSC eyes utilities' storm preparedness, response

By Megan Workman
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Public Service Commission on Friday ordered 12 West Virginia utilities to evaluate their preparedness for, and response to, the devastating windstorms that swept through the state during the past few weeks -- and to say how they will prepare for future events.More than half a million West Virginians lost power because of the June 29 derecho windstorm and subsequent  storms. Some utility customers remained without power and water for nearly two weeks after the initial storm.In its order, the PSC acknowledged "that the utilities, their employees, and their contractors worked long hours in their efforts to restore and stabilize utility service."Commissioners went on to say, though, that, "The Commission also is aware that a significant majority of West Virginians were without electricity for some period of time and in many instances, long durations. The restoration effort and the customer outages occurred during a period of time with extreme temperatures, further exacerbating the hardships experienced as a result of the derecho."The utilities have 30 days to submit their reports.Commissioners said they require responses from Appalachian Power Co., Wheeling Power Co., Monongahela Power Co., The Potomac Edison Co., Harrison Rural Electrification Association Inc, the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, the Black Diamond Power Co., the cities of New Martinsville and Philippi, West Virginia-American Water Co., Beckley Water Co. and Frontier Communications.Also, commissioners "encouraged" the West Virginia Rural Water Association, West Virginia Small Public Utilities Association and the West Virginia Municipal League to canvas the small utilities among their groups and respond to the PSC.The PSC's order outlines 11 issues the companies must report on, from estimating costs of restoration services to providing a timeline of restoration efforts.
In their order, commissioners said their goal is not to blame companies, but to figure out what can be done to "lessen the impact of future outages."After a December 2009 storm left more than 334,000 West Virginians without power, the PSC launched an investigation and found that utilities didn't do enough to prevent and respond to widespread power outages.When the PSC found that utilities didn't properly clear trees from rights of way before the Dec. 18-19 storm, it directed Appalachian Power and Allegheny Power to take significant steps to improve preparations and responses to future outages.When the investigation concluded in December 2010, The Charleston Gazette reported that the PSC required Appalachian Power to appoint "switching coordinators" who would oversee communications between dispatch centers and power company employees working in the field to restore electricity. Appalachian Power also had to fix deficient equipment and computer software, according to the order.The power company also was directed to develop plans for notifying customers about billing irregularities after major outages.Appalachian Power said after the investigation that it had hired a consultant to evaluate the utility's storm performance and preparedness plans.Also, the PSC has scheduled a public hearing for Sept. 18 to discuss what could be the state's first-ever targets for how utilities should handle and quickly fix power outages. In filings in the case, PSC staff members and the commission's Consumer Advocate Division said the plans proposed by the industry wouldn't have much effect.
Reach Megan Workman at or 304-348-5113.
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