Weather events led to more significant power outages in Pennsylvania: report
Nobody complains about electricity until the lights go out.
For many Pennsylvanians, that happened a record number of times last year, according the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission's 2021 Electric Service Reliability Report.
During 2021, there were 63 reportable outages in Pennsylvania, the most since the PUC started producing the Reliability Report in 1993. The previous high, 52, was in 2019. There were 47 reportable outages in 2020.
"A reportable outage event is an event that impacts 5% of a utility's customers or 2,500 customers, whichever number is lower, for six or more consecutive hours," PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said.
Although the number of reportable outages went up, the number of customers affected went down. There were 1.9 million customers affected in 2021, which was 500,000 less than in the previous year.
Most of the reportable outages were due to severe storms in the spring and summer. Hagen-Frederiksen said that although there were a handful of winter storms in the report, the majority of the severe weather occurred in the warmer months.
Equipment failure is also something the PUC tracks, Hagen-Frederiksen said. Met-Ed, which serves York County, had an equipment failure in December 2021 that turned into a reportable event.
"Aside from that, every other reportable outage event was triggered by some form of storm," Hagen-Frederiksen said.
The No. 1 factor that causes the outages in such storms, he said, is downed trees that fall into poles and wires. They account for 37% of all of the reportable outages last year.
"There is a growing issue with what's known as off-right-of-way trees. Those are trees outside the utility's right of way and outside of their ability to do trimming and vegetation management because they are on private property," Hagen-Frederiksen said.
For Met-Ed, which tracks trees in the right of way versus trees outside it, along with equipment failure and vehicles into poles, off-right-of-way trees were the No. 1 cause for total number of minutes interrupted, the total number of customers interrupted and the total number of incidents.
Met-Ed had just over 770,000 customers who had interrupted service last year, compared with just over 720,000 in 2020. Trees and equipment failure were the major causes of reportable outages for Met-Ed last year. In 2021, the trees and equipment failure contributed to more than 74% of the total lost customer-minutes.
While the PUC has seen an increase in reportable outage events in the state, Terry Fitzpatrick, president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, said that could be attributed to new technology that makes it easier to track such outages.
"The numbers could be affected by that to some extent," Fitzpatrick said. "The way you measure things and evaluate things has changed."
The Energy Association of Pennsylvania is a trade group in Harrisburg that focuses on state issues related to natural gas and electric utilities in the state. The group represents Met-Ed and other electricity providers across the state. They are advocates for the industry with the PUC and the legislature in Pennsylvania.
“We’ve had a series of discussions with the PUC staff going back a couple of years on this issue of electric reliability,” Fitzpatrick said. “A couple of things, I think, are leading to that is you see some of the outage statistics going up. The PUC is trying to do its job, which I certainly understand this, asking why is this. They need to make sure that our members, the electric utilities, are doing their jobs, basically.”
Fitzpatrick agrees that the number of storms and their intensity have had an impact on the electrical infrastructure in the state. He also said electricity providers have made a significant investment in improving infrastructure.
"There has been a definite pickup on the part of the industry in their investment in their systems," Fitzpatrick said. "There is more money being spent to harden the system, to replace poles with sturdier poles, and to put technology in place, something called reclosers. When there is an outage, it limits the extent of the outage so that it's not as widespread as it would have been once upon a time."
A recloser is an automatic, high-voltage electric switch that shuts off electric power when trouble, such as a short circuit, occurs.
"There's also advanced meters out there that give the companies greater visibility into the systems," Fitzpatrick said. "With advanced metering, the company can tell whether a customer's service is out or on and that allows them without having to hear something from the customers saying their service is out, it gives them greater visibility on what's going on in their system. It helps them make repairs more quickly because they can see where the problems are."
While the PUC is taking electricity reliability seriously, Fitzpatrick said, so are those in the industry.
"The key thing I would emphasize, and we've been saying this to the PUC, we're spending more money on our systems than we have in a long, long time if not ever," Fitzpatrick said. "We're taking the infrastructure seriously. We're spending more money, too, to keep customers better informed."