Windstorms and power outages: PUD working to reduce down time, improve reliability

Utility crews repair a broken power pole in the wake of December's windstorm. (Photo courtesy Snohomish County PUD)
Utility crews repair a broken power pole in the wake of December’s windstorm. (Photo courtesy Snohomish County PUD)

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


7 Replies to “Windstorms and power outages: PUD working to reduce down time, improve reliability”

  1. From the article: ‘ “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.’

    I recall reading an article several years ago after one big power outage that there are still property owners who refuse to let the power providers trim or remove affected trees.

    I wonder if the power providers can obtain court orders to go onto the properties anyway under the legal theories of utility easements and/or public nuisances. That may sound extreme, but it is not right that a large number of businesses and residents can be kept “in the dark” by a handful of individuals.


    1. I’m sure PUD is trying to be as respectful as possible of the home-owners’ property to which PUD has lawfully been given access. The owner of the land subject to easement is entitled to reasonable use of it. But unduly or unreasonably interfering with the right of the utility to maintain their lines (in this case to prevent damage to the electrical lines), would be in breach of the easement requirements. But, probably more importantly, refusal to trim or remove errant trees that may cause your neighbors to lose power is a breach to the community itself. In some cases the loss of power is more than just an inconvenience. Many of our neighbors rely on electricity for a variety of essential (possibly life-saving) needs – is that tree really more important than they are?.

      I believe we should be respectful of nature AND our neighbors.


  2. I was wondering if there is some way businesses like IGA could have temporary access to generators so they don’t have to lose business and have their food ruined. In the times IGA was affected I worried that loss of business would hurt them. I can imagine how much was lost on the day of the Seahawks runoff game. Let’s hope this Sunday is not a windy day in Edmonds.


  3. What’s not mentioned, and which is equally if not more important, is why this section of Edmonds/Woodway is always the LAST section returned to service. In the 30 hour outage in December, all other areas were restored prior to Edmonds/Woodway. Same thing happened in the January 18 outage. There is something going on regarding how SnoPUD chooses to prioritize repairs. The fact is, if SnoPUD wanted to repair the Edmonds/Woodway area sooner during outages, they could. But they don’t. It would be great if this reporter could get a response from the PUD regarding how they prioritize repairs.


    1. Hi Tom, and thanks for your comments. As the My Edmonds News reporter who covers power outages (among other things!), I’ve had numerous conversations with PUD officials about outage restoration and how this work is prioritized during storms and other emergencies. Here’s what I’ve been told:

      The “prime directive” if you will is to restore the largest blocks of customers first. There are only so many crews, and if a single repair will bring back 1000 customers, that will take precedence over a repair that will restore 10. Here is part of an email sent to me by a PUD official while I was researching the article on the recent windstorm outages:

      “In terms of prioritizing outages, first the PUD focuses on outages at the higher-voltage transmission level, which power substations that serve large numbers of customers, hospitals, schools and businesses. Oil spills from transformers, wires blocking main highways and wires down in areas accessible to the public, on buildings or on vehicles get high priority based on their safety hazards. Next to be restored are substation main line circuits that serve neighborhoods and/or businesses. Smaller outages are then addressed. These may be caused by transformer malfunctions or fallen service lines and may serve one or just a few homes. Finally outages impacting non-essential street lights are resolved.”

      Also note that the recent windstorms caused widespread outages throughout the PUD’s service territory…it wasn’t just Edmonds…and that crews from other utilities were brought in to help (it’s a common practice among electric utilities to borrow crews, sometimes from many states away, to assist during major outages).

      Another good thing to keep in mind is the importance of spotter crews to efficient power restoration. These crews drive through areas affected by outages looking for the source of the problem. When they find it, they assess what kind of crew will be needed to do repairs (e.g., a heavy line crew to repair high-voltage main circuit spans and transformers, a regular crew for secondary wire spans, a substation crew to handle problems with breakers and other substation equipment, a tree crew to remove trees and branches from equipment, etc.). Often customers see these spotters, wonder why the PUD crews are driving down their street and not restoring their power, and end up feeling they’re being given the short shrift. Not so. It’s just the way the PUD identifies problems, figures out what kind of crew or crews to send, and what kind of tools and equipment they need to bring to the site.

      I sure do sympathize with your frustration. Dealing with multi-hour power outages can sure make you feel…ahem…powerless. And it’s tempting to fall into thinking that the utility is conspiring against you.

      For what it may be worth, my 30+ years experience working with electric utilities as both a news reporter and as a utility spokesperson to the news media tells me that the PUD and other electric providers are doing the best job they can to keep everyone’s power on and restore everyone as quickly as humanly possible during emergencies.


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