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Power company president compares derecho, superstorm

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The head of Appalachian Power Co. said the June 29 derecho and Superstorm Sandy were similar in one respect: trees fell from outside the company's right of ways onto lines, knocking out power to thousands of customers.

Charles Patton, Appalachian Power's president and chief operating officer, said that in almost every other way the derecho and Sandy were different.

The biggest difference was the derecho hit without advance warning. Consequently, the company's first planning meeting came two hours after the storm swept through. That's when the company began asking for assistance from other utilities.

In contrast, Sandy "was well forecast," he said. "As a result, we began positioning crews three days before the storm. We had resources on the ground, in hotels, just waiting, the day Sandy struck here."

Another difference: The derecho caused damage over a large swath of the eastern United States, requiring Appalachian Power to seek help from far away. Sandy hit the northeast United States and West Virginia hard but didn't have a big impact on Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Consequently, Appalachian Power was able to get resources from those states immediately, as well as from other American Electric Power subsidiaries in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

Patton recalled that two weather models were used to predict Sandy's path - a European model, which predicted heavy snow in West Virginia's higher elevations, and an American model, which didn't predict an impact on West Virginia.

"We erred on the side of the European model and secured American Electric Power resources," he said. "By the time we started needing resources, the national scene and the northeast were already heating up. We made the right decision. They were asking for our resources but we decided to keep ours home."

Another difference: Immediately after the derecho, Appalachian Power was able to survey the damage. But after Sandy engulfed the state in snow, there was heavy cloud cover, winds persisted, and it continued to snow - leaving 36 inches of heavy snow and even deeper drifts in some of the company's service territory.

"We could not use the type of tools we preferred," Patton said. "Helicopters are central to assessment efforts."

Helicopters couldn't be deployed for 3 1/2 days. The company had to use bulldozers, all-terrain vehicles and shoe leather to get to some of its facilities.

Another difference: After the derecho, it took Appalachian Power 13 days to restore service to 90 percent of its customers. After Sandy, it took four days.

Despite the problems Sandy posed, Patton said he wants to make this clear: "I prefer the three-day notice storm."

Perhaps one of the biggest differences was the magnitude of the storms. In West Virginia, about 437,000 Appalachian Power customers lost their electric service after the derecho, compared to about 150,000 after Sandy.

The costs will differ, too.

Appalachian Power has estimated the derecho cost the company $62 million in West Virginia. Patton guessed Sandy would cost about a third of that or $20 million to $25 million.

The state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, allows companies to recover all expenses related to storm damage, provided that the expenses are shown to have been prudent.

Spokeswoman Jeri Matheney noted that as a result of a commission ruling, the company just this year began recovering expenses from a 2009 snowstorm. Appalachian Power is collecting about 14 cents more a month from its residential customers and will continue to do so for eight years.

Patton said, "I don't want to trivialize someone else's expenditures, but when you look at the number of customers we have (about a half million in West Virginia) and the time the state Public Service Commission gives us to recover expenses, that's what we're really talking about: 14 cents a month over eight years. That's the cost of getting thousands of resources in to restore us as quickly as possible."

Another difference: About 60 percent of the derecho's impact on Appalachian Power occurred in its West Virginia service territory, while about 40 percent was in Virginia. About 80 percent of Sandy's impact on Appalachian Power occurred in its West Virginia footprint "because Virginia didn't get the big snow," Patton said.

As for fallen trees, "the net result was the same, just different causes," he said. "With the derecho, high winds caused trees to break. With Sandy, it was heavy snow and a heavily saturated ground that caused trees to be uprooted. The results were the same.

"In storms of these magnitudes, I can't emphasize enough that trees outside our right of ways are a problem," he said. "When a tree on a hillside decides to fall, it typically does more damage because it often falls with more force and momentum and is falling a longer distance than trees that fall in the right of way."

On the subject of experiencing two major storms in one year, Patton said, "We're concerned that we are seeing more storm activity, and we've looked at a number of studies that suggest we're in a period of time, for whatever reason, when there seems to be a little more major storm activity.

"So it will continue to be important that we educate the public, work on our processes, and coordinate our processes with emergency and relief agencies."

Appalachian Power does not currently have a "trim cycle" - a set number of years during which it clears all of its right of ways of trees. Instead, the company tries to identify high-risk areas and areas where the company's executives believe reliability can be most significantly enhanced.

Patton said he would like to establish a four-year trim cycle.

The company currently spends about $15 million annually on tree trimming. Appalachian Power has estimated a four-year cycle would cost an additional $25 million a year for about five years, with the additional cost dropping back to $17 million or $18 million a year thereafter.

The company figures a four-year cycle would increase the average residential customer's bill by about $1 a month for five years and would then drop to about 48 cents a month.

But even a four-year trim cycle won't help when huge storms hit, Patton said.

"Here's a data point: First Energy (which serves the northern half of West Virginia) is on a four-year trim cycle. But (following Sandy) we got our service back before they did!

"They're doing a great job; they just have more remote areas at higher elevations," he said. "The point is, the trim cycle doesn't matter when you've got trees, root balls, coming down the mountains."

Contact writer George Hohmann at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.


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