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West Penn Power had most major outages among Pa. utilities last year

Jeff Himler
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Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
This file photo shows West Penn Power utility crews work on power lines.

Last year was a rough one for West Penn Power, and for a lot of its customers.

Many Pennsylvania utilities in 2017 saw a dramatic increase in major outages, and West Penn Power led the pack. According to the state Public Utility Commission’s annual Electric Service Reliability Report, issued Tuesday, West Penn Power had 11 outages last year that interrupted service to at least 2,500 of its 710,000 customers for six or more consecutive hours.

Attributed largely to an increased frequency of storms, and resulting damage from toppled trees, those major outages were up by eight, compared to the 2015 total.

All together, West Penn Power experienced 152.7 million minutes of service interruptions to customers last year, compared to 113.1 million minutes in 2016.

In response, West Penn is ramping up maintenance and upgrades of its infrastructure and trimming of trees near its lines – steps the PUC has recommended for all electricity distributors in the state. Those lines stretch across a service territory of about 10,400
square miles.

This year, West Penn intends to spend almost $270 million on projects designed to upgrade and enhance the reliability of its transmission and distribution systems, according to spokesman Todd Meyers. That’s an increase from the more than $235 million spent in 2017.

The utility also looks to spend about $49 million this year to trim trees along about 5,000 miles of its lines – including targeting dead and dying ash trees. That’s an increase of about $9 million from the 2017 tree-trimming budget and about
$21 million more than it spent managing vegetation in 2016.

“We are committed to spending significant dollars on the right projects to help enhance service reliability for our customers, including the installation of automated switches and remote control devices on wires and in substations to both reduce the number of outages and shorten the duration of outages,” Meyers said. “We are also rebuilding electric lines, including replacing damaged insulators, cross arms, pole and wires, to improve performance.”

Halfway through 2018, West Penn has had just four major outages. Meyers expressed hope that it’s “a positive sign that the steps we are taking to enhance service reliability for our customers are taking hold. The weather may also be a little less wild than last year.”

Duquesne Light had six major outages last year, compared to just one in 2015. Its service interruptions equaled 7.1 million kilovolt-amps in 2017 – up from 5 kVA in 2016. About half of the outages were caused by trees, including trees damaged in storms.

Duquesne Light annually spends about $15 million to prune or remove trees located in its rights of way, to reduce the potential for outages. “We also encourage our customers to plant the ‘right tree in the right place’ to ensure they don’t eventually pose a threat to our lines as they mature,” said spokesperson Niki Campbell.

The utility plans to invest $250 million from 2017 to 2022 in a long-term plan to accelerate upgrades and replacement of aging infrastructure, such as utility poles and wires.

“We remain committed to working closely with regulators to identify opportunities to improve our transmission and distribution system, which includes 45,000 miles of overhead power lines, so we can continue to provide safe and reliable power to nearly 600,000 customers in Allegheny and Beaver counties,” Campbell said.

Among all 11 of the state’s electric utilities, storms disrupted power to 1.3 million customers last year, nearly twice the 2016 figure and more than double the
2015 amount.

“It appears that if more frequent, severe weather patterns become the new norm, the Pennsylvania electrical distribution systems will have difficulty in meeting the established performance criterion,” the PUC report cautions.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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