From ice storms to thunderstorms, to snowstorms, Oklahomans rarely get a rest from the weather and neither does our power grid. This past week, the problem was an electricity shortage due to the extreme cold. But most of the time the issue is more simple: something, typically wind or ice, knocks down the overhead power lines. But a solution to that issue is not so simple.
The October 2020 ice storm knocked out power to more than a million Oklahomans. Some were left in the dark for weeks.
OG&E said they deployed 4,300 workers from 18 states and Canada to help get the power back on in its largest restoration effort ever.
“This was the worst storm in our company’s history. By far,” said Brian Alford with OG&E.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has since launched a broad scale inquiry into how power companies across the state responded.
“Were they prepared for it in advance? Did they deploy people out to help in time? Did they employ enough people out to help? Did they have systems in place to prepare for that type of event?” listed Brandy Wreath, Director of Public Utilities for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. He said these are just a few of the many things the agency is investigating.
The last time there was an inquiry of this magnitude was in 2008, after the massive December 2007 ice storm also considered one of the worst in state history. That storm knocked out power to 600,000 Oklahoma homes and businesses.
Jim Roth was a corporation commissioner at that time and pushed for a substantial line hardening plan. He’s now the Dean at Oklahoma City University School of Law.
“In 2008, I was hopeful that we would mandate the utilities to underground some of the worst circuits,” Roth told News 9.
He however was out voted and instead commissioners concluded vegetation management was a priority and encouraged electric companies to look at other ways to harden their lines.
“Obviously, that hasn’t worked.” Roth said. “If you look at last year’s event. That same problem still exists.”
Now that the commission is looking into the issue again, Roth would like them to once again consider what more can be done.
He pointed to Florida. After an intense 2004-2005 hurricane season, the Public Service Commission adopted extensive line hardening initiatives that included replacing transmission and distribution poles with steel or concrete, regular inspection, and undergrounding power lines.
In 2016-2017, the state once again saw an extreme hurricane season and was able to gage if the hardening program was working. Officials with both the Public Service Commission and the power companies say it is.
The state's largest Utility-Florida Power and Light invested more than $5 billion in its hardening efforts. In comparing Hurricane Wilma in 2005 before the hardening and Irma after, they say even though Irma was a stronger storm, a Category 4, and impacted more customers the average outage went from 5.4 days to 2.3 days and power to all customers was restored 8 days sooner.
But Alford said something like that in Oklahoma wouldn’t justify the cost. He said undergrounding their entire system would cost between $10 and $20 billion and could double our electric bills.
“There is a cost-benefit that has to be looked at,” said Alford.
Instead, OG&E recently asked the corporation commission to approve an $800 million system hardening plan that focuses more on technology that automatically identifies problems and re-routes electricity to get power back on faster. In early October, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission approved a scaled down version.
“We’re trying to look at ways how you can get the best uptime for customers, the most cost-effective way the folks can still afford those utility bills,” said Wreath.
He argues just a couple more dollars a month could mean some customers can’t afford their electric bills.
Just weeks after that settlement was reached the massive ice storm hit. OG&E said restoration costs were $174 million.
Roth also pointed out the economic costs of businesses who were without power for days even weeks and the human costs of those whose life and health was put in jeopardy when power went out. He would like the legislature to consider a statewide solution and said some lawmakers have already expressed interest in taking up the issue.
“I just wonder if we can be planning further ahead so it’s not just responding to outages,” he said.
Wreath does point out many neighborhoods, especially newer ones have underground power lines. He said since 2008, power companies across the state have spent $30 million moving power lines below ground.