PSC closes derecho probe, orders tree maintenance plan - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

PSC closes derecho probe, orders tree maintenance plan

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In a move to increase reliability of the state's electrical grid and reduce outages due to major storms, the state has ordered utilities to submit plans to trim trees and other plants threatening power lines.

The Public Service Commission ordered all electric utility companies in the state to propose a "comprehensive vegetation trimming program" to maintain the area surrounding electrical lines. The utilities have six months to file a petition to propose its plan.

"The proposals must cover all distribution and transmission lines on an "end-to-end, time-based cycle," based on the utility's specific operational and reliability targets," the PSC states. "The proposals also must indicate how the program will be coordinated with other entities that have facilities in the rights of way or attached to the utility poles, and that may also have an obligation to maintain the same rights of way."

The order included that companies must submit their method of rate recovery relating to the increased cost associated with compliance with the order.

"Although  the  electric utilities appear to have expended on average  the  yearly amount  embedded  in  their  cost  of  service calculations for right-of-way maintenance, the damage inflicted by the 2009/2010 winter storm, the  derecho  and  Hurricane Sandy, raise a question about  the  adequacy  of those  expenditures and efforts, particularly given the extensive damage and outages resulting from these storms," the official order states.

"It is clear from this investigation that sufficient funding for right-of-way maintenance should not be sacrificed in the interest of keeping customer rates as low as possible."

According to a PSC release, the order marks the closing of the investigation of the June 29 derecho summer storm that knocked out power to thousands of customers over an extended period. The sudden nature of the storm caught the state's electricity providers off guard and unprepared to restore service as quickly as normal.

Superstorm Sandy, which occurred just a few months later, also left many without power, but for much shorter lengths of time.

At least one public comment received by the PSC included looking at microgrid, smart grid, batteries, distributed power, solar and other newer technologies for grid reliability, but those were not mentioned in the order.

Bill Howley, who runs the Power Line blog, has criticized the PSC and state utilities for focusing on tree-trimming efforts but not building reliability in the form of distributed power and other grid technologies. Howley uses a home solar energy system after what he said was a struggle with a history of problems with Mon Power.

Although the tree trimming directive was the only thing the PSC ordered in its announcement, it acknowledged in the order that right-of-way maintenance alone would not solve the issue of grid resiliency.

"The Commission is cognizant that more aggressive right-of-way clearing will not prevent all outages, particularly those due to storms of the intensity and duration of the derecho and Hurricane Sandy," the order states. "We believe, however, that increased right-of-way maintenance will lessen future storm impacts with regard to the frequency and duration of outages and the resultant impact on customers."

West Virginia's geography, the PSC said in an earlier interview with the State Journal, makes some outages an unavoidable reality. In the order, the PSC reiterated geographic challenges of the Mountain State and said even the most vigilant tree trimming would not prevent all storm outages in certain conditions.

A part of the problem, the PSC notes, is the construction of the distribution structure.

The commission said it was informed of some construction methods including poles being set by "men with shovels using mules and horses to haul poles" before the age of motor vehicles. The paths created are sometimes in narrow passages and in other high risk areas and are still in use.

Replacing older lines in less-than-ideal paths with off-roadway lines would require increased cost.