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Business & Economy

Officials: AEP's management of vegetation around transmission lines, storms, responsible for massive June outage

 Storms caused a tree to damage a home and take down powerlines on June 6, 2022.
AEP Ohio
Storms caused a tree to damage a home and take down powerlines on June 6, 2022.

The sustained power outages experienced by AEP customers in central Ohio in June were part of the most complex overload event transmission line operators in the region have experienced, and was caused in part by vegetation on the transmission lines, according to statements made during a meeting Thursday.

Regional transmission organization PJM manages the transmission lines utilized by other energy providers in this region of the United States, covering customers in several states. The members met Thursday and discussion of the outage was included on the agenda.

PJM's review found the event had “more actual overloads and potential cascading outages than PJM had experienced previously.”

The issues began June 13 when a storm system moved through central Ohio, and worsened over the next few days as temperatures soared.

The storm damaged transmission lines and distribution facilities, according to PJM, and required “load shedding,” which is intentionally taking customers offline in order to prevent further damage. At the peak, about 250,000 customers in the state were without power.

The decision to sustain intentional outages drew ire from critics who felt less affluent neighborhoods were targeted for the load shedding. Critics also said AEP should have communicated better with residential customers and should have asked big energy consumers like manufacturers to voluntarily shed load to protect the grid.

AEP Ohio said the events occurred so quickly, there was no time to communicate properly and placed blame on the weather for the fallen transmission lines.

PJM said Thursday that after their review of the event, they are recommending AEP make adjustments and changes to their vegetation management practices, which the company does to main trees around the transmission lines in their coverage area.

Mike Haugh with the Ohio Consumers' Counsel said electric customers have been paying fees to AEP for at least a decade to handle vegetation management.

The utility company is promising to increase their removal efforts, but Haugh questions why it took such a large outage to spur them into action.

“They should be doing it, and they're getting paid to do it. But you know, why did they wait until now to essentially decide to do it?" he said.

An AEP spokesperson was not available for an interview, but the company did issue a statement stating they are evaluating the circumstances that lead up to the emergency and “are putting in place preventative measures to help reduce the impact of severe weather events on our system in the future.”

AEP states that “highly loaded transmission lines will hang lower or ‘sag.’” And, when the lines were initially overloaded, they sagged, but “did not come in contact with any trees or vegetation and remained operational.”

The thunderstorms, though, “caused changes in the landscape and displaced trees,” causing the massive failures, according to AEP.

PJM’s review also found that its dispatchers should receive more training on how to handle such complex events. Though they have been trained on how to handle overloads in the past, no event had ever been this large, company representatives said during the meeting.

PJM’s policies prevent the media from directly quoting or recording speakers at their meeting.

AEP states the company has “enhanced its vegetation management practices in the Columbus area,” using aerial laser scans and more visual inspections around the transmission lines.

“We have fixed any damage or hazards we discovered,” the company said.

The company states it is also working with the local governments “to develop better communications and community support plans to help customers when severe weather or other unforeseen events disrupt service in the future.”

PJM indicated they relied on information provided by AEP for the review of the vegetation issues.

Haugh said utility companies like AEP that operate as state-sanctioned monopolies often don't make customer service a priority because customers are stuck with them.

"If they had the ability to go to a different competitor, AEP would be doing damage control immediately, saying 'here's what we did, we will fix it, we'll do better.' But they don't. They seem to wait six months, because they knew customers can't go anywhere," Haugh said.

He said consequences would help secure accountability in the future. He said he was disappointed that it took so long for PJM and AEP to reveal vegetation management played a part in the outages and that they're still not forthcoming with details.

"Too often consumers are ignored. They don't feel they need to give them the information, but they forget that the consumers are paying for this," Haugh said.

The regional transmission line organization PJM stated that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation is also working on a report of the outage.

Haugh said the report is to document the incident, not to levy consequences.

Business & Economy
Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.