Regulator: Missouri utilities can do more against storms

Thursday, January 18, 2007

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri's electric utilities should be looking for new ways to prevent outages such as the widespread blackouts that continued Thursday after a weekend ice storm, a state regulator said.

Robert Clayton, one of five members of the Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities, said the frequency of outages after storms means regulators and power companies should look at such options as burying more lines and using stronger materials.

"We've been told we had the storm of the century in 2004, then there was one in 2005, then there were three in 2006. If weather patterns have changed, and I don't know that they have, then we have to change the way we're thinking about utility reliability," Clayton told The Associated Press. "I think all utilities in the state have room for improvement because it seems that the storm patterns we are facing are causing outages on a more frequent basis."

In Missouri, particularly in the state's southwest section, more than 108,000 homes and businesses were still without power Thursday, the State Emergency Management Office said.

The storms contributed to at least 12 deaths in Missouri. State officials said seven were traffic related and five were blamed on carbon monoxide poisoning.

Last weekend's storm left up to 2 inches of ice on trees and power lines, knocking out electricity to more than 330,000 customers from Joplin to St. Louis.

Clayton said improvements could include burying more power lines, more aggressive tree trimming along lines or building poles and lines with new, stronger materials.

"All of that costs money, so it would have to be fully evaluated and a cost-benefit analysis completed," Clayton said. The Public Service Commission should take a lead in that analysis, possibly with help from outside consultants, he said.

Springfield's City Utilities, which still had about 20 percent, or 20,000, of its customers in the dark Thursday, said it expects plenty of public discussion in the coming weeks and months about power reliability. The utility is owned by the city and therefore is not regulated by the state.

Joplin-based Empire District Electric Co., which is regulated, declined to comment. About 28,000 of the utility's southwest Missouri customers still lacked power Thursday.

Springfield Utilities General Manager John Twitty said customers will ultimately have to decide how much they are willing to pay and how much they want their trees cut back.

"People's attitudes about tree trimming will change after this event. People like their trees, and heretofore they didn't like their trees trimmed," Twitty said.

Most new subdivisions in Springfield have underground utility lines, but the cost for burying the old network would be huge, Twitty said. The utility estimated the cost at $1.5 billion in a study 15 years ago, and the price has only gone up since.

Twitty said the recent storm damage was unusual. Typically, past ice and wind storms have knocked out power for a couple of days, but this time the area had freezing rain over three days and repairs are taking longer.

"We have very good reliability statistics. So the question is: How much more do you want to pay for?" Twitty said. "There's going to be a large, large increase in electric bills if we were to decide that everything goes underground."

Meanwhile, residents saw some relief from freezing temperatures, as highs reached into the 30s on Thursday. But City Utilities warned that some people who have regained power could lose it again as ice melts, falling on lines or allowing previously bent trees to hit lines, or if wet snow forecast for the weekend weighs down more limbs and poles.

The National Weather Service is forecasting up to six inches of heavy, wet snow from Saturday into Sunday in southwest Missouri, with more freezing temperatures after that.

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