Lawmakers, utilities review ice storm response

A utility worker checks a line on Devon State Road during the fierce February storm.
A utility worker checks a line on Devon State Road during the fierce February storm. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 29, 2014

HARRISBURG - State lawmakers gave utilities a passing grade for their handling of the Feb. 5 ice storm that knocked out power to nearly one million households. But each company, they said, has room for improvement.

In testimony before the House Consumer Affairs Committee on Thursday, executives for Peco, PPL, and First Energy said that although the ice storm was more destructive for Pennsylvania than Hurricane Sandy, its outages were resolved faster and customer satisfaction was higher.

Lawmakers were especially impressed with PPL, which serves central and eastern Pennsylvania. It reported a 43 percent drop in tree-related outages since it began an aggressive vegetation management program in 2012.

"All the way out to the perimeter of our right-of-way, we trim all the trees out and remove everything at the ground level," said PPL vice president Dennis A. Urban Jr. "It lessens the potential for trees that are outside the right-of-way to fall . . . on our lines."

As a result, PPL's major transmission lines stand isolated at the edge of roads.

"Everywhere I go in my district, I see power lines running right through the middle of trees. We shouldn't be surprised during storm events that we have massive outages because of it," said Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery), a committee member whose Horsham constituents were among the hardest-hit during the ice storm.

Freezing rain began falling the night of Feb. 4, and by the morning trees had sagged and snapped under the weight of the ice and snow that had fallen on Feb. 3 - taking power lines down with them.

Thousands remained in the dark for nearly a week as utility crews toiled in frigid temperatures to repair the lines and, in some cases, rebuild entire segments of the power grid, said Peco chief operating officer Mike Innocenzo.

PPL experienced 92,000 outages at the height of the storm, primarily in Lancaster County. First Energy had 136,000, mostly in York County.

Peco, with its larger, more urban customer base, reported a high of 715,000 outages. Philadelphia was largely spared, but at one point 70 percent of Peco's customers in Montgomery, Bucks, and Chester Counties lost power.

Rep. Warren Kampf (R., Chester) questioned Peco's executive about the shifting estimates for when power would be restored, which frustrated many of his Chester County constituents. Innocenzo said they were usually due to secondary problems that were only discovered after neighbors' lines had been repaired.

All three utilities reported that they restored at least 90 percent of the outages within three days.

Steve Freemer, 67, of Huntingdon Valley, was among those who waited much longer. He and his wife, who has been battling cancer, lost power for six days, Freemer said.

"They just weren't telling the truth to people," he said in an interview this week, recalling that Peco seemed to report every day that his power would be restored by 11 p.m., and when it wasn't, the estimate would shift to 11 p.m. the next day.

With his wife's delicate health, Freemer said, he didn't want to keep her in their house without power as temperatures remained below freezing. After two nights, he took her to stay at her sister's apartment in Jenkintown. He returned to their home until power was restored.

During the storm, Freemer said, he would have preferred Peco provide a range of possible outcomes, so people could prepare for the worst.

For people like Freemer, the outages "became cataclysmic," said Rep. Peter J. Daley (D., Fayette).

But overall, Daley, Stephens, and other legislators said, the companies had a "terrific response" under the circumstances.

Looking ahead, the committee wanted to see more focus on preventative measures and information-sharing so each company could learn from the others' strengths.

PPL admitted it could improve logistics and preparation for incoming work crews, while Peco deftly managed a crew of 6,800 with no major injuries.

Based on the testimony, Peco, whose customers complained of poor communication and inaccurate restoration times, might take a cue from First Energy, whose website showed not only outage maps but also updated when crews arrived to work on each outage site.

Municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs might also begin talking to residents and temper any lingering resistance to more aggressive tree-clearing. Stephens said the appetite for prevention is strong now.

"If it's three years from now and the storm is out of their minds, a distant memory, then maybe it's not going to be so easy," he said.

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