No. 1: Storm-related power outages trigger frustration in 2012 - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

No. 1: Storm-related power outages trigger frustration in 2012

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Utility trucks line up in Raleigh County to repair downed lines following superstorm Sandy's destruction in West Virginia. Utility trucks line up in Raleigh County to repair downed lines following superstorm Sandy's destruction in West Virginia.
The June 29 derecho pulled down many old trees by their root balls, sending them over power lines. The powerful wind storm also bent major transmission lines in half in parts of the state. The June 29 derecho pulled down many old trees by their root balls, sending them over power lines. The powerful wind storm also bent major transmission lines in half in parts of the state.
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Homes too hot or too cold to live in, freezers full of spoiled food.

It's a nightmare many West Virginians lived not once, but twice, this year — some for weeks.

The extreme summer and winter storms that took the lives of 10 in the state and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands are The State Journal's No. 1 story for 2012.

Hurricane-force winds slammed the state without warning on June 29 and were just as quickly gone. It was a "derecho": a sudden, straight-line storm that took much of the eastern half of the nation by surprise. In West Virginia, the storm killed three, damaged property statewide and threw more than two-thirds of the state's million electric power customers into the dark.

More than 680,000 customers suffered power losses that dragged out during an oppressive heat wave. Utilities set up water and ice supply stations. Retailers couldn't stock enough generators.

As local and trucked-in crews worked day and night to repair substations and transmission lines, several smaller storms blew through and created new outages. Eleven days later, more than 50,000 customers still had no power. It was mid-July before everyone's lights were finally restored.

Telecommunications and water were knocked out too, though to fewer customers.

The derecho cost the state's largest electric utilities a combined $172 million, according to filings they made with the state Public Service Commission in August. It also cost merchants across the state — or their insurers — untallied millions in spoiled inventory, employee productivity and business lost.

Then just four months later, with insurance and disaster assessments for the derecho still under way, the state was battered on Oct. 30 with the hurricane-Nor'easter dubbed "Superstorm Sandy." Trees still in leaf fell under heavy snow, knocking out power for more than a quarter million. Families suffered this time in unseasonable cold, and some again were without power for more than two weeks. Seven West Virginians died.

The costs of that outage are not yet known.

Several big questions followed these storms.

Bury the lines?

Early and insistent among the questions was the plea, can't power lines be buried?

"The operative words are ‘cost-effective,'" said Appalachian Power President and COO Charles Patton.

"Is (the cost) justified for events that are one-in-five-year events or one-in-10-year events?" he asked. "I think industry and ratepayers historically answer ‘no.'"

Burying power lines costs millions per mile, experts said — typically five to 10 times what it costs to string them on poles. A North Carolina study found that burying power lines across the state would take 25 years and would more than double residential rates. And although outages are less frequent with buried lines, they take longer to resolve.

Outages unavoidable?

A second question followed on the heels of the first: Can't something be done about reliability? Anything?

As it happens, new reliability rules the PSC set in 2011 will go into effect in 2014. The commission has assigned the electric utilities targets for outage frequency and length and for system-wide reliability. Utilities will have to submit annual reliability reports that identify their 5 percent worst-performing circuits and their planned improvements.

Performance will be weighed when utilities seek rate increases, PSC Consumer Advocate Byron Harris said.

PSC engineers and the utilities said that achieving reliability targets and improving the worst circuits, along with installing measures such as rugged composite utility poles and technology that routes power around circuit faults, will reduce the number and length of outages over time.

But, bottom line, extreme storms and power lines don't mix well, experts said.

Only those who have installed their own power generation systems — primarily, solar power systems at homes and businesses, with battery energy storage — avoided the outages their neighbors suffered this year.

More weather-related outages to come?

That led directly to the big question that loomed over this year of big weather: Are extreme storms due to climate change, and are we in for more of them?

It's a perennially unanswerable question.

But a U.S. Department of Energy analysis of "major" grid disturbances in the 1990s and 2000s found that, while the number of non–weather-related disturbances remained essentially flat at around 20 per year, the number of weather-related disturbances shot up over the period: from well under 10 to near 140.

The share of disturbances related to weather rose from 20 percent to more than 70 percent.