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Lush trees, high winds and power outages

Last summer, the historic derecho ripped through West Virginia, knocking out power to half the state.

Some customers were left without electricity for two weeks during the hottest time of the year.

The storm crumpled metal structures that hold high-voltage transmission lines, and many of the outages were caused by trees and tree limbs falling into local power lines.

The derecho was - we hope - a once-in-a-lifetime storm, but it was a dramatic example of a recurring problem in the Mountain State: power outages as a result of inadequate maintenance of electric lines.

It's become a vicious cycle. A storm causes power outages. Customers complain that the lines are not kept clear.

The power companies say they're doing the best they can. Then, after the power is restored, everyone forgets about it until the next storm.

That could be changing.

Last week, the state Public Service Commission ordered the power companies that serve West Virginia to come up with proposals for regular tree trimming along the rights of way.

"We're asking to see what their plans are for the next several years," said PSC spokesperson Susan Small. "How is it that they are going to go about treating all their properties, all of their lines, on a regular maintenance schedule rather than hit and miss."

The key here is "regular maintenance."

Appalachian Power Co., the state's largest provider of electricity with 500,000 customers, currently clears rights of way on an as-needed basis. Spokeswoman Jeri Matheney says Apco will reply to the PSC order with a "cycle trim" schedule that, for example, might have rights of ways cleared every four years.

Naturally, there will be a cost to the customer, but Matheney believes it will be manageable.  The cost of the fuel used to generate electricity in West Virginia (primarily coal) is not going up right now, and may continue to hold steady at least in the near term because of the competition from low natural gas prices.

That means customers will not get hit with the double-whammy of maintenance costs and rising fuel prices.

West Virginians enjoy relatively low electricity costs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says the price for a kilowatt hour was 9.85 cents as of last November.

That's about two cents below the national average and lower than every neighboring state except Kentucky (9.33 cents).

The average residential Apco customer pays just under $100 dollars a month for electricity.  Matheny is not ready to estimate exactly how much more customers would have to pay for regular right-of-way clearance, but she suggests it won't be more than a couple of dollars a month, no more than

the cost of a gallon or two of gas.

If so, that's a reasonable investment. Power company customers have complained for years, and rightfully so, about utilities not keeping trees and branches away from power lines.

The derecho forced the PSC and the power companies to finally come to terms with the problem. The solution will be relatively simple, but it's not going to be free.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.

 


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