PUD customers saw more, longer outages in 2012

Winter storms and rapid tree growth caused more outages for Grays Harbor PUD customers in 2012 than in recent years, officials said at a Monday meeting.

The average customer spent about 300 minutes without power in 2012, compared to about 200 minutes in 2011, 280 minutes in 2010 and 230 minutes in 2009. Customers also saw a slight increase in the frequency of outages, with the average customer seeing 1.57 outages in 2012 compared to 1.42 in 2011.

Customers in Elma and Montesano were most impacted by the outages, with Elma seeing 109 outages in 2012 and Montesano seeing 80. Wes Gray, chief operating officer for the PUD, said these numbers are likely the result of a January snow storm in East County.

“That pretty significantly impacted the outage duration for our customers,” Gray said.

Gray said PUD customers are still feeling the impacts of a December 2007 storm, with vegetation along power lines growing more quickly than expected after the record rainfall. About 30 percent more outages were caused by vegetation in 2012 than in 2011.

“In some areas of the county, we saw seven or eight years worth of growth in four or five years,” Gray said. “It came as a surprise to even our tree crews, and they’ve been playing catch-up. We’ve been doing a lot of trimming, trying to clear those right-of-ways so that we can get a longer duration of our trim cycle.”

“It’s just constant vigilance for our crews on that program,” he added.

About 52 percent of all unplanned outage time in Grays Harbor is caused by either weather or trees, Gray said, with wind accounting for 21 percent of unplanned outage time, broken trees accounting for 19 percent and storms causing 13 percent. The next largest culprit: car accidents. About 11 percent of unplanned outage time in 2012 was the result of vehicles hitting utility poles.

Gray said there’s not much the utility can do to prevent these outages except make sure poles are placed a safe distance from the road. He said the PUD follows all state and federal guidelines for pole placement.

“No matter where we put the poles, they’re going to run into them,” Gray said.

“You know, we’ve been accused of putting magnets in those poles that keep bringing those cars to them,” he joked. “But that’s not the case. The good news is that the magnets are getting weaker, they’re not pulling as many cars in.”

The number of vehicle accidents causing outages decreased in 2012, with only 14 that year compared to 19 in 2011. But the accidents were more severe, so customers saw more time without power in 2012.

The PUD also tracks outages by month. In 2012, January and December had the most outages, 92 and 83 respectively. Gray said the high number of outages in these months is largely the result of winter weather. But surprisingly, July was a close third with 70 outages. Gray said that while this number may look like an anomaly, it’s not that uncommon.

Utilities tend to see an increase in outages when weather is warmer and people stop using as much electricity. With less usage, there’s more voltage flowing through the system, putting more stress on the various components, he said.

Grays Harbor PUD is part of the American Public Power Association, an organization that serves about 2,000 publicly owned utilities in the United States. Compared to other APPA members, Grays Harbor PUD has a less reliable system. Gray said the average Grays Harbor PUD customer saw about 300 minutes of outages in 2012, while APPA customers saw an average 0f 46 minutes.

But Gray said it’s difficult to compare Grays Harbor to the APPA as a whole given the county’s unique geographical situation. He said the hilly terrain and proximity to the ocean cause Grays Harbor PUD to see more outages.

“It gives you a little bit of a metric, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison,” Gray said.