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    Power problems reveal AEP is unprepared even for routine storms | Theodore Decker


    June 23, 2022 - Theodore Decker, The Columbus Dispatch

     

      I spent much of last week off the grid.

      Sounds like many of you did, too.

      With one major difference, of course. For me, the choice was mine. I was roughing it in the mountains of north-central Pennsylvania.

      Here in central Ohio, that choice was made for many of you by American Electric Power Ohio.

      Utility officials said AEP had to cut power to about 170,000 Columbus-area customers after storms that rolled through the state the night of June 13-14 knocked out high-voltage transmission lines in the north and southwest parts of Greater Columbus.

      Those lines, AEP said, feed power to Greater Columbus. When the storms were followed by stifling heat, AEP said it was forced by PJM Interconnection, the grid overlord for Ohio and all or parts of a dozen other states plus the District of Columbia, to cut power to areas of Greater Columbus to avoid overloads and cascading problems driven by the higher demand for electricity. The decision, AEP officials said, is something that PJM does as a last resort.

      Those decisions immediately came under fire from residents, as well as local and state officials demanding an investigation. This week, Gov. Mike DeWine finally entered the fray, saying he wanted several questions answered.

      Many questioned whether the brunt of the outages were shouldered by lower-income neighborhoods.

      A Dispatch analysis of the outages showed some higher-income communities such as Upper Arlington also were affected, but let's not pretend that disruptions like this affect the economic classes equally. When much of Texas fell into an historic deep freeze in 2021, it was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz who jetted off to Cancun with his family to ride it out, not his lower-income constituents across Texas.

      AEP issued assurances that it did not target the outages based on neighborhood demographics.

      "There's no tie whatsoever to customers, or what type of customers," said Jon Williams, AEP Ohio's managing director of customer experience.

      Ohio's "managing director of customer experience" probably should have thought harder before saying the second half of that sentence aloud.

      But while Williams' remark does raise an interesting question — What "types" of customers are there, AEP, other than the paying kind? — another might have come to mind.

      As one of the nation's largest power generators, AEP earns more than $2 billion annually. It has also done pretty well when it comes to paying federal income tax in recent years, according to the Ohio Capital Journal.

      Financially, then, the company appears to be sitting pretty. How then, was it so unprepared for a chain of events as routine as bad-summer-storms-followed-by-hot-weather? Do the bigwigs at 1 Riverside Plaza not have calendars?

      Last week's bad weather was not even remotely of the scope of the derecho that roared through Ohio in 2012 or those ice storms that had Sen. Cruz packing his tropical shirts and bolting for the airport in 2021.

      The derecho, you probably remember, also occurred during a wicked heat wave. Now, a full 10 years later, AEP's service fell apart under a far less-significant weather event.

      That's a major problem.

      According to reports by the National Weather Service, the southern half of Ohio seemed to get the worst of last week's weather, with widespread reports of wind damage and an EF1 tornado in Pike County. The second line of storms, the one that hit closer to home, consisted of "significant straight-line wind damage to large portions of the area, as well as some small hail and bouts of localized flooding," the NWS said. There also was a low-level tornado that touched down over Knox and RIchland counties.

      But note the absence of the word "historic."

      And what about those human threats that politicians love to expound upon and we average Americans tend to fret about?

      After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there was much ado about the vulnerability of the nation's power grid.

      Nearly two years after that, in August 2003, we learned that it didn't take a cabal of well-funded terrorists to take down the grid.

      All it took were some tree branches in Cleveland and an ensuing string of human and hardware errors.

      That breakdown, in which a key player was not AEP but another Ohio-based company, FirstEnergy, knocked out power to 50 million people from Detroit to New York City.

      Lessons were learned after that mess, we were assured.

      Yet nearly 20 years after such a massive debacle, after years of big profits and customer rate hikes, our energy providers remain woefully unprepared.

      Theodore Decker is the Columbus Dispatch metro columnist.

      tdecker@dispatch.com

      @Theodore_Decker

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