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Democratic Lawmakers Host Hearing on Electricity Outages, Reliability, and Preparedness - Senator Lisa Boscola

Harrisburg – September 29, 2020 – The Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held a virtual public hearing today at the request of Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D- Bucks) to focus on electricity outages, reliability and preparedness.

“At the end of the day, we need to know that Pennsylvanians will have access to reliable electric service,” Santarsiero said. “Electricity reliability is not a new issue, but one that we have seen consistently worsen, particularly as we’ve seen a rise in the number of storms that pack high winds and hard downpours.  Year-round electric reliability and preparedness is vital to the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians, and an issue that must be addressed both by the industry itself and the agencies that regulate it.”

Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh/Northampton), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, added, “It is important that we do all we can to assure that power outages are as limited as possible. We also need to make sure our utility and emergency service providers are ready to respond as quickly and efficiently as possible in times of crisis. Ensuring consumers have adequate and potentially lifesaving access to electricity in their homes is essential.”

The Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) announced in their 2019 Electric Service Reliability Report that a total of 52 “reportable outage events” disrupted electric service to residents and businesses across the state. This is the highest number of recorded incidents in Pennsylvania since the PUC began collecting reliability data in 1993. 

Reportable power outage events have mainly been driven by severe thunderstorms during the spring and fall. These events interrupted service to 1,988,188 customers last year according to the PUC’s latest Electric Service Reliability Report. These incidents are different from previous spikes in outage figures that were driven by a small number of high-impact storms, like hurricanes or severe winter storms.

The PUC report said that the increase in severe weather events combined with many electric distribution companies (EDCs) performance metrics being rated as “poor” in 2019, calls into question the reliability performance and resilience of the overall Pennsylvania electrical distribution system.

“Following up on the Electric Service Reliability Report, Commission staff will be meeting with the EDCs in October to discuss overall electric reliability and options for improvement through available regulatory tools,” Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, chairman of the PUC, said.

Dutrieuille said that in instances where extreme weather is known to be heading towards Pennsylvania, the PUC increases their efforts to be ready at all levels and will continue working through regulatory measures to make sure the EDC performance in these areas improve.

“If the impending weather event appears to be of a significant impact to the Commonwealth, the Commission works with PEMA and other state and federal agencies on preparation. Commission Emergency Preparedness Staff also work with the EDCs and other jurisdictional lifeline utilities (water, wastewater, telephone, and natural gas) to understand their preparations and to capture any unmet needs,” Dutrieuille continued.

Electric service provider representatives also all stated that the number one reason for power outages in Pennsylvania is downed trees. Vegetation management is essential in mitigating disruptions in electric services.

“Changing weather patterns in our region has led to an increased growth rate in the vegetation in proximity to our transmission and distribution facilities. To reduce disruptions in service, our Vegetation Management team has consistently minimized on-ROW (Right-of-Way) vegetation,” Kevin Walker, Vice President and Chief Operations Officer of Duquesne Light Company, said. “We are constantly examining these challenges, evaluating strategies, and working to mitigate the off- ROW tree problems in our service territory.”

Stephanie R. Raymond, Vice President of Distribution Operations at PPL also said that it is technological upgrades such as Smart Grids and tracking outages through data rather than reacting to them once they have already occurred, that will continue to allow electric service providers to improve consistent and reliable service.

However, Nicole LeVine, Vice President of Electric Operations at PECO said that just this year, “…we have experienced one of the most challenging storm years ever – including two of the ten most destructive storms in our company’s history two months apart.”

Santarsiero said that due to the serve weather instances this year, his office put out an informal survey within his district and found that anecdotally, “51% of respondents indicated that they lose power any time there is a significant weather event and 77% of respondents indicated that they lose power for more than 4 hours at a time.”

Santarsiero continued, “No one is calling for perfect, as wonderful as perfection would be.  Ultimately, we have to make that balance of what is reasonable and what isn’t.  Where we are today is a different place than where we were 20 years ago.  Redefining what that means in the new context is the challenge that each utility and the PUC will have to grapple with.” 

Boscola, who has chaired the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure for almost two decades, said how important utility reliability and access is for Pennsylvania customers, especially in times of severe and unpredictable weather and as we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tanya McCloskey, Acting Consumer Advocate for the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate said that ensuring continuous and reliable electric service is necessary to ensuring the safety of consumers and the public, especially this winter as more consumers shelter at home for health reasons and remain at home for work and school as we continue to battle against the spread of COVID-19.

“It is important that the types of investments we heard about to be made and the long term plans we heard about today are put into place to make electricity more reliable. I hope this is a continuation of the conversation, not the end of it, since we have a lot of work that needs to be done,” concluded Santarsiero.

The following testified at today’s hearing:

  • Stephen Bennett, Manager, Regulatory/Legislative Affairs, PJM Interconnection – View Testimony
  • Terry Fitzpatrick, President & CEO, Energy Association of Pennsylvania – View Testimony
  • Nicole LeVine, Vice President, Electric Operations, PECO – View Testimony
  • Stephanie R. Raymond, Vice President – Distribution Operations, PPL – View Testimony
  • Kevin Walker, Vice President & Chief Operations Officer, Duquesne Light Company – View Testimony
  • Scott Wyman, President, Pennsylvania Operations, FirstEnergy – View Testimony
  • Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, Chairman, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission – View Testimony
  • Tanya McCloskey, Acting Consumer Advocate, Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate – View Testimony
  • John Evans, Small Business Advocate, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – View Testimony

Senators who attended today’s hearing include: Jay Costa (D- Allegheny), Larry Farnese (D- Philadelphia), Sharif Street (D- Philadelphia), Tim Kearney (D- Chester/Delaware), and Lindsey Williams (D- Allegheny)

The Senate Democratic Policy Committee has already held numerous hearings regarding COVID-19 related issues in Pennsylvania in the past six months, which can all be found on Senator Boscola’s website.

A full recording of this hearing, and links to all previous hearings, is available at senatorboscola.com/policy.

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