A total of 63 “reportable outage events” during 2021 disrupted electric service to residents and businesses across Pennsylvania – all related to the impact of weather on the state’s power grid – marking a substantial increase over previous years and marking the highest number of incidents since the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) began collecting this type of reliability data in 1993.
The PUC’s latest Electric Service Reliability Report details reliability information for the 2021 calendar year for the state’s 11 electric distribution companies (EDCs), including Citizens’ Electric, Duquesne Light, Metropolitan Edison, PECO, Pennsylvania Electric, Pennsylvania Power, Pike County Light & Power, PPL Electric Utilities, UGI Utilities, Wellsboro Electric and West Penn Power.
According to the report, most EDCs struggled to meet key reliability performance benchmarks during 2021. While some of the outage events could be attributed to aging infrastructure, the number of reportable outage events due to severe weather appear to be increasing in frequency for all EDCs, including those that have strong infrastructure improvement plans.
As noted in the report, this information is not provided as an excuse for a decline in reliability performance of the EDCs, but rather to reiterate the importance of EDCs continuing to invest in reliability improvement and resilience to weather events. The EDCs continue to accelerate infrastructure improvement and to work on improving reliability and resilience through their Long-Term Infrastructure Improvement Plans (LTIIPs). The three EDCs that have expended the most capital through their LTIIPs (Duquesne, PECO, and PPL) have been the most consistent in achieving benchmark performance the past three years.
Ongoing Concerns with Trees
Trees continue to be a key factor for service reliability – especially trees that are located outside the utility right-of-way. Downed trees or falling tree limbs are the number one cause of electric service outages across the state.
EDCs continue intensifying vegetation management on their right-of-way corridors. However, off-right-of-way trees are causing most of the damage and often result in road closures that lead to significant delays in power restoration and negatively impact the reliability and resilience of Pennsylvania’s electric distribution system.
Smaller Storms in 2021 Helped Limit Some Impacts
While the tempo of storm outage events in Pennsylvania continued to increase, from 46 in 2020 to 63 in 2021, those storms had a more limited impact in terms of total customers impacted. Further, even as the total number of storms and outage events increased, there was a notable reduction in the number of incidents classified as “major events,” decreasing from 29 events during 2020 to 22 in 2021.
Overall, the outage events in 2021 were primarily driven by heavy rain and high winds during spring and summer thunderstorms, interrupting service to 1.9 million customers. This was less than the 2.4 million customers impacted by events in 2020. Significant outage events in 2021 included the remnants of Hurricane Ida, multiple tornados, and several severe thunderstorm systems.
PUC Exploration of Reliability Improvements
In response to growing concerns, the PUC initiated an Electric Reliability Collaborative, bringing together the EDCs, the Energy Association of Pennsylvania and the state’s Office of Consumer Advocate and Small Business Advocate to explore key issues.
Over a series of meetings from the summer of 2021 through the spring of 2022, the collaborative discussed issues including electric reliability in general, ways to address off-right-of-way trees, performance metrics, the work of other states, and various regulatory and procedural issues – all focused on how the Commission, EDCs and other stakeholders can enhance electric reliability for Pennsylvania consumers.
Recommendations and potential next steps are being developed by the PUC’s Bureau of Technical Utility Services for future consideration by the Commission as this process moves forward.