PSE answers critics on storm response

OLYMPIA — Representatives of Puget Sound Energy recapped the utility’s response to January’s widespread power outages Monday, walking the state Utilities and Transportation Commission through a 10-day period in which Western Washington was slammed by snow, ice, wind and more wind, ultimately resulting in 478,000 power outages, or about 40 percent of its residential customers.

Among the counties hit hardest during the storm were Thurston, Pierce and south King, said Sue McLain, senior vice president for delivery operations for PSE, as well as its emergency response officer during the storm.

McLain was one of five PSE representatives to address the commission during Monday’s three-hour public hearing. She and others discussed nearly every aspect of its response, from its costs to how the agency prioritizes outages to how the call center responded to the thousands of customers who called during the storm seeking status updates.

They also talked about challenges, some of which were evident from the beginning as the scale of the storm slowed PSE crews because of dangerous work and driving conditions. Helicopters were unable to take off to survey damage.

Commissioners also asked questions, such as how the utility prioritizes its response during a storm and how it worked with other crews that were brought in to help.

McLain said the first order of business was to restore power to “local critical infrastructure,” such as hospitals, water and sewer treatment operations and community shelters.

Once power has been restored to substations, the agency also looks at how to provide the most power to the most customers. Those likely to be last in line are customers with damaged houses, possibly requiring an electrician to do some work before PSE can restore power, McLain said.

PSE responded to the storm with as many as 450 tree, line and other crews, some of which already work with PSE, such as Potelco and Asplundh, but they also called in other crews as well.

Commissioner Patrick Oshie addressed a complaint that PSE had used only crews from other investor-owned utilities, but that was not the case, McLain said.

Crews also were called in, for example, from Snohomish County PUD and the Bonneville Power Administration, she said. They also were paid at their standard billing and labor rates, McLain said.

So far the utility’s deferred storm costs are $55 million and rising. The Hanukkah Eve storm of 2006 cost PSE about $100 million, she said.

PSE’s call center also was busy during the storm and likely led to some frustration among customers.

Kim Goetz of Olympia, one of four people to testify during the hearing, said that PSE had two basic problems: a lack of information and a lack of accurate information.

“This is understandable in the short term, but after five days this is no longer acceptable,” she said. She added that she lost power for about six days. She checked the PSE website at one point and it showed her repairs were complete, even though her power wouldn’t be restored for another three days.

Goetz recommended that PSE send out information via text. It uses a lot less power and would be available even to those who don’t have smart cellphones, she said.

“If a system like this can work for ‘American Idol,’ it should be able to work for Puget Sound Energy,” she said.

PSE addressed some technological challenges with its call center during the storm, including trouble with an “ezroute” service that increases the number of calls that can be handled during peak demand. A CenturyLink network outage and a recent system upgrade temporarily affected the service during the storm, which resulted in busy signals.

Mark Reynolds, director of regulatory affairs for CenturyLink, acknowledged these issues in his presentation. CenturyLink spent $1.2 million and cable TV company Comcast spent $1.4 million as a result of the storm. The two companies also dealt with generator theft during the storm.

“There was far less generator theft than previous events although detailed tracking requires improvement,” said Jameson Acuff as part of his presentation. Acuff is Comcast’s director of engineering operations for the Seattle region.

New technology should help PSE respond to the next storm.

This summer the utility is expected to launch an an outage management system and a geospatial information system, two technologies that will provide better information about outages, spokeswoman Dorothy Bracken said. The technology was recommended to PSE after the Hanukkah Eve storm, but its implementation was delayed because of the investment, planning and preparation needed for the technology, she said.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403