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WSAZ Investigates | Power Struggle

Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 7:54 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - West Virginia is plagued with power outages that are becoming longer and more frequent for more than 400,000 Appalachian Power customers.

People who pay their bills every month are often left without power for days and even weeks. WSAZ began investigating the issue after some Appalachian Power customers were in the dark for more than a month following last winter’s two ice storms that knocked out power to more than 100,000 West Virginians.

The latest federal data shows West Virginia leads the nation in power outages without major events, such as storms.

During the past decade, Appalachian Power customers have been without power for an average of more than 25 hours per year, according to documents filed with the Public Service Commission (PSC).

During that same period, the average monthly bill for Appalachian Power customers increased by $55 per month. Appalachian Power said those increases are meant to help reduce outages, but the problems keep growing.

West Virginia power companies have spent more than $1 billion during the past 10 years on system maintenance and improvement, according to the PSC. That includes a vegetation management program that is designed to trim every wire end-to-end every four years.

Many areas served by Appalachian Power have been on outage reports filed with the PSC as the worst performing for up to five consecutive years, such as Clendenin and Fort Gay.

Angela Copley said some of her neighbors have even moved out of their Fort Gay neighborhood due to the constant outages. Copley was left cold and in the dark for 16 days during the ice storm, but the power poles outside her house are still covered in vines and other vegetation.

“Every single time I walk into this house, my light is blinking on my stove because my electricity has flickered on and off, or even been off for a couple of hours,” Copley said. “They need to maintain their poles, and they need to upgrade. If they spend billions of dollars, they need to upgrade. Here. I spend my money too. Just like Charleston, just like Huntington. I spend my money here too. I need that money to be seen for me and my family.”

“My electric bill, I use less electricity, but my electric bill is three times higher than it was three years ago,” Copley said. “I have no benefits for that. I still go without electricity. Everything is unplugged in my house that I don’t use because you can’t afford electricity and then when it goes out they can’t fix it. That is just really aggravating for people who pay their bills and try to live right. It’s just uncalled for.”

PSC filings show Appalachian Power had around 6,000 outages in 2020 and more than 4,100 outages caused by equipment failures. In an exclusive interview, WSAZ sat down with Appalachian Power President Chris Beam to ask about these problems and share the struggles his customers face on a daily basis.

For a look at the entire interview with Beam, tap here.

“It does concern us, all outages concern us,” Beam said. “If it’s a tree out of the right away, equipment failure, an animal on the line, failure whatever, they all concern us and we have a five-year reliability plan that we built that addresses all these circuits. You keep track of your worst-performing circuits. We know where they are, we know how long they’ve been on that worst performing list and we build a plan to fix those. The thing you have to remember about West Virginia is once again a beautiful state, love living here, the problem is it’s a beautiful state with a lot of hills and a lot of trees.”

“We maintain about 23,000 land miles and they’re not like these lines running in this backyard behind us,” Beam continued. “These lines run up through hollers and over the hills and through the woods, so maintaining 23,000 line miles is hard to do, it’s expensive to do. We have 500 circuits. Think about that, it takes years to upgrade your system. This system is an old system. This system (was created) probably in the early 1900s, 1910, 1920, some of that stuff is still in service today and it’s serving some in the southern part of the system. We’re upgrading that from a transmission perspective, we’re upgrading it from a distribution perspective, but if you said today, go fix it all today, we can’t fix it all today. There’s not enough money and there’s not enough people to do it.”

Beam said all of those upgrade costs are passed on to the customer, even when an outage is caused by Appalachian Power equipment failing.

The average Appalachian Power bill increased $8 this month as part of a new surcharge the company said will pay for “smart circuit” technology, according to PSC documents.

The Kanawha County Commission successfully filed an intervention against that increase request, so Appalachian Power will not be allowed to file for a base rate increase during the next three years. However, the company will be allowed to raise rates to earn money for things like storm recovery.

“I hate to tell them, but these mountains have been here before the power company got here,” Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said. “Yes, it is a little more difficult here in West Virginia. Yes, I understand that we’ve got power lines back through areas with a lot of vegetation. When a big storm comes by that is a problem, but they failed to maintain their right of ways for over 20 plus years. This didn’t happen 20 years ago. News flash to the power company, the mountains and the trees have been here a lot longer than 20 years.”

“We are not the only state that has trees and hills, but we are number one,” Carper said. “It’s a shame that we are always number one for something we don’t want to be number one in, and we are number one for this. They’re doing better, and I have to say, during COVID, the power company responded to our numerous requests, especially around nursing homes and hospitals. They’ve done a good job on that and I’ve written letters and told them that, but they’ve done a lousy job maintaining the right of ways.”

In WSAZ’s 52-minute interview with Appalachian Power President Chris Beam, Reporter Brendan Tierney asked about a number of solutions to improve service as well as rate increases and storm recovery efforts.

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