Mother Nature did her thing late in 2018, bringing two major storms to our region during the fourth quarter. A mid-October weekend wind storm was followed by a late November snowstorm, both causing extensive damage and leaving several thousand electric customers without power.
The snowstorm was particularly memorable as it left 15 broken poles in its wake. Despite the damage, we had all service restored within 24 hours. On the heels of events like these, those of us who have been around for a while typically engage in the “what could have been” conversation.
When I started my tenure as your CEO 17 years ago, my primary charge from the board of directors was to improve system reliability. So we rolled up our sleeves and developed a plan that included a number of efforts, including a strategic and aggressive line clearance program. We worked our way across our 4000+ miles of line and cut trees to create a 30 foot ground-to-sky clearance around our lines, the standard recommended by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It took many years to reclaim our rights-of-way, and we are now in a proactive maintenance mode that includes annual re-grooming and spraying. See our 2019 line clearance plan here.
Line clearance minimizes the likelihood of trees and animals coming in contact with power lines, and also gives us better access to our distribution system so crews can get equipment in to make repairs. Fifteen years ago, our customers would have been in the dark for days on the heels of an event like the November snowstorm. In fact, it would have taken longer to clear a path to reach a broken pole than to actually change it out and make repairs because our rights-of-way were such a mess. We can only speculate at what could have been, but our team members who know the system and history can speak with confidence about how different today’s service experience is.
We will never be able to totally eliminate outages. We have a highly complex, largely overhead infrastructure that will always be subject to weather, equipment failure, and other issues. Because we are dependent on transmission providers to bring power to our substations, your service experience is also dependent on the work they do to maintain their systems. AEP, our primary transmission provider, is finishing a major system upgrade in southwest Michigan and we’re hopeful that will eliminate some of the pervasive outages that have impacted thousands of our own customers in recent years.
2019 promises to bring continued improvements in your service experience as we invest in our system to bring you first-in-class solutions.