In the wake of the most severe windstorms in recent years, Snohomish County PUD says it has stepped up efforts to work with local officials, businesses and citizens to enhance electrical system reliability and shorten outage times.
The first big windstorm hit in early December, breaking branches, blowing down trees and causing protracted outages to customers in Edmonds and throughout the PUD’s service area. No sooner had the damage been cleaned up than another storm hit in mid-January, putting many of the same customers back in the dark. A host of residences and businesses in downtown Edmonds experienced outages, including the Edmonds IGA store, which was without power for 30 hours between Dec. 11 and 13, only to lose power again for 14 hours on Jan. 18.
Outages of this duration are inconvenient for everyone, but for businesses like the IGA it means a big hit to the store’s bottom line. In testimony before the Edmonds City Council last week, IGA store manager Reid Huntington said that a letter had been sent to PUD General Manager Steve Klein asking what could be done to address the situation, and pointing out the “significant loss of revenue” to the IGA from these recent outages. Mayor Dave Earling added that he has been in contact with Klein, who assured Earling that he is “personally” handling the situation.
“We’ve been in Edmonds almost two years now,” Huntington told the council. “We came here with big plans for the store, and every time this happens it sets us back a little more.”
The City Council also heard testimony from Leanne Pepper, a resident of Soundview Apartments, a Section 8 HUD-subsidized facility targeted to seniors.
“Many of our residents depend on the elevators to get to their homes,” she said. Pepper told of “ruined” food and of residents “trapped in the dark for days.”
So what is the root cause of these outages, and why are some customers more adversely affected than others?
“Trees are the number-one cause of outages,” said PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos. “While we’ve made some very significant progress in recent years, this winter’s storm events show that there’s more work to be done.”
One area that has seen significant improvement is Westgate and adjacent areas served by PUD circuit 405.
In 2011, another year marked by severe windstorms, customers served by circuit 405 experienced an average customer outage time of 890 minutes, more than 10 times the 2011 overall system outage time of 83.3 minutes. (Read the December 2012 coverage in My Edmonds News here.)
Those numbers prompted the PUD to fast-track tree trimming and other improvements, and in early 2013 the utility removed 19 problem trees and trimmed back 233 trees that were threatening power lines on circuit 405.
The results have been significant, bringing the 2013 average customer outage time on circuit 405 down to 24.2 minutes. For reference, the average system-wide outage time for 2013 was 84.5 minutes.
In an effort to bring this same targeted approach to customers on other circuits, Neroutsos said that initial investigations show “more than 100” problem trees remaining in the Edmonds area.
“Unfortunately many of these trees are in locations where we need permission from property owners to trim or remove them,” he said. In cases like this, the PUD works directly with the property owners.
While trees are the number-one priority, the PUD is also looking at other ways to address the inconvenience and monetary impact of power outages including improvements to utility equipment and helping business customers investigate emergency backup generation.
“Keeping the power on and outage times to a minimum is a continuing challenge,” Neroutsos said. “The PUD is committed to meeting this challenge by working with all parties to strike the best balance between aesthetics and system integrity while being sensitive to community values.”
— By Larry Vogel