State regulators to question AEP over Columbus blackouts today

By: - July 13, 2022 3:55 am

American Electric Power headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. Getty Images.

State regulators will meet Wednesday to review American Electric Power’s decision to cut off electric service to 230,000 customers during a June heat wave to prevent a larger-scale blackout.

A June 13 storm damaged three transmission lines — high voltage wires bringing energy from generating plants to transformers before it reaches customers — according to the company. An unspecified number of other Columbus lines “tripped from service unexpectedly” the next day, an AEP spokesman said.

After the storm, a heat wave and soupy humidity set in. Demand for electricity exceeded the supply the decreased number of transmission lines could carry, threatening to overload them and cause a much larger blackout.

AEP — at the direction of PJM, which operates the 13-state electrical grid — enacted “forced emergency outages” on June 14 at substations fed by the overloaded lines, the company said. Most residents regained power by June 16 but some were without until the next day.

The company claims it had no discretion on who was to lose power but was at the mercy of malfunctioning powerlines. The NAACP and other organizations and politicians have questioned the company on this point. Others criticized the company for failing to warn customers in advance.

“Customers were not notified,” said AEP spokesman Scott Blake. “There simply wasn’t enough time to do so and keep the grid functioning.”

Data from the Columbus Public Health department shows a spike in emergency department visits for heat related illnesses during the blackout. It’s unknown if these people had lost power, and a CPH spokeswoman said no additional information was available.

Blake said AEP isn’t qualified to say whether there’s a connection between the hospital visits for heat illness and the blackouts and noted that correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation.

Since the blackout, AEP donated $1.5 million to nonprofits in assistance to affected customers. That averages out to about $6.50 per affected customer

At Impact Community Action, a Columbus nonprofit that helps Ohioans pay and reduce their energy bills, staff gave out 1,000 Kroger gift cards worth $250 to cover costs of spoiled food for affected residents. Photos taken outside show people wrapping around the block in the blazing heat to wait in line for the limited supply.

“We had people coming out the night before and spending the night on the street,” said Jennifer Wood, an organization spokeswoman.

The Urban Institute of Columbus distributed $750,000 in AEP funds, with priority to the elderly and those whose medicine expired in the fridge. The organization shut down its online application portal after receiving more than 3,000 requests for $1 million in aid in about 36 hours. It ultimately served 2,622 people a maximum of $300.

“We just simply couldn’t take care of everyone,” said the organization’s associate vice president, Jeaneen Hooks about the decision to close the application portal. “That meant first come, first serve.”

The Franklin County Dog Shelter and Adoption Center was among those to lose power. In a Facebook post, it asked residents to donate ice, frozen peanut butter treats and kiddie pools to keep the dogs cool. A spokesman couldn’t be reached to follow up.

During the blackout, a 24-year-old woman was shot and killed at a community center that was a designated cooling area for those who lost power. The Columbus Dispatch reports an 18-year-old woman and 15-year-old boy were injured as well.

The scene outside Impact Community Action on June 30 as it distributed $250 Kroger gift cards to customers affected by the AEP blackout. Source: William M. Perry.

Questions raised

At a hearing last month, the state’s top industry regulator — Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairwoman Jennifer French — promised an after-action report to see how to avoid similar blackouts in the future.

“These outages have caused not only inconveniences, but also serious problems for residents and businesses in the affected areas,” she said. “We understand these problems and hope to see power restored to all as soon as possible.”

Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statement last month that avoided any criticism of AEP but asked a question that came up in multiple interviews for this report: Why did some neighborhoods lose power when others did not?

The NAACP of Columbus issued a release implying skepticism of AEP’s claim that it had no control over who lost power. It noted most areas without power were in the “urban community,” which indicates bias given the increased rate of residents enrolled in a state-funded program that subsidizes their home heating bills.

Democrats in the state legislature wrote AEP a letter seeking answers about the blackout and related matters. They said a more thorough accounting of events is warranted.

“We find it troubling that AEP has no issue with customer notifications when bills are due, but when customers are faced with historic heat, limited resources and great needs, there seems to be limited or no communication about planned outages that impact the health, safety and welfare of customers,” they wrote.

Is AEP to blame?

Others have questioned how AEP prepared for the heat wave. Utility companies monitor weather closely to predict electricity demand. PJM issued hot weather alerts the mornings of June 12 and June 13.

PJM issued the first of several warnings about the potential for overloaded lines starting at 10:55 a.m. on June 13 — more than 24 hours before the first blackout. PJM issued several more warnings until ultimately beginning to issue directives to shed electric load at 2 p.m. on June 14, according to a review of PJM's emergency procedures postings.

The company is likely to face questioning of what, if any, action it took to reduce customer electricity demand in this time frame.

The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, a state watchdog representing residential customers’ energy interests, requested that the PUCO launch an “investigation” into the blackouts, noting the regulators have thus far only committed to a “review.” The OCC asked the regulators to make a finding as to whether AEP was negligent and therefore liable for damages.

Ashley Brown, a former PUCO commissioner and current executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, said AEP should have taken long-term actions in the lead-up to the heat wave that could have reduced the net amount of electricity in use at a given time.

For instance, he said some utilities offer commercial or industrial users discounted electricity prices via "interruptible rate contracts." In exchange, the utility reserves the right to order the heavy users to shut down in a time of unusual stress on the grid.

Also, utilities could ask (or devise programs to essentially demand) that customers turn down or decrease their air conditioners — generally the largest energy spend for residential customers. Some utilities nationally have developed programs to cycle customers’ water heaters and air conditioners, so fewer use them simultaneously.

“Ohio is in pretty lonely country in not doing this stuff,” he said. “It won’t stop weather problems from occurring, but the idea of dealing with this entirely on the supply side is beyond primitive. It’s so out of date.”

Brown also pointed toward 2019’s House Bill 6, which AEP supported, as an indirect cause of the blackout. The legislation is at the center of an unrelated criminal public corruption investigation.

Among other provisions, the legislation gutted Ohio’s energy efficiency resource standards. The idea was utilities administer programs, funded by customers, to reduce their customers’ annual energy use via weatherization, more efficient appliances, and others. Brown said the net reductions in aggregate energy demand could have eased stress on the transmission lines.

However, both AEP and another energy expert disputed this. Howard Petricoff teaches energy and utility law at Capital University. He compared the criticism to blaming a large piece of chocolate cake for weight gain. It’s not the piece of cake that caused the weight gain — it’s the sustained diet. He suggested the company consider infrastructure investments.

AEP made similar remarks.

“The amount of power reduction needed to relieve stress on the impacted lines on Tuesday and Wednesday exceeded large end users’ load in those areas,” Blake said. “Reducing power in other areas of the city that were not fed by these specific transmission lines would not have had any impact on the outage.”

The PUCO is scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. The hearing will be streamlined here.

This article has been updated to clarify the June 13 warnings from PJM. 

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Jake Zuckerman
Jake Zuckerman

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.