AD Main Menu

After derecho storm, why is it taking so long for the power to come back? It's not.

Mark ClaytonThe Christian Science Monitor

Tempers may be running hot over the widespread power outage that still has air conditioning knocked out in much of the sweltering mid-Atlantic and Midwest, but data show that several hard-hit states are seeing power restored faster than in past outages.

Last August, hurricane/tropical storm Irene knocked out power to 2.5 million customers in three densely populated states, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey. In total, 6.6 million customers lost electricity in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

As of this past Saturday, a powerful storm called a "derecho" had knocked out power to 4.1 million customers across 11 states and the District of Columbia, the US Department of Energy reported.

But by Monday morning, about 2-1/2 days after the storm struck, power had been restored to 1.8 million customers, about 45 percent of the total, according to DOE reports. In Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey – where 51 percent of the outages occurred – the pace of restoration was 5 percent faster than after Irene.

In Virginia, for example, which had just over 1 million customers without power after Friday’s storm, some 659,000 customers had their power restored over the 2.5-day period – a rate of 263,000 per day, which is about 64 percent faster than after Irene.

In Maryland, meanwhile, nearly 900,000 customers lost power this time. But their power was restored at a rate of 183,000 customers per day, compared with 173,000 per day after Irene – about a 6 percent improvement.

Someone may want to tell that to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

“No one will have his boot further up [regional power companies] Pepco’s and BGE’s backside than I will,” he said, even though Maryland utilities were doing a better job than after Irene.

Comparison data were not available in Ohio and West Virginia, which had 1.5 million outages, more than one-third of the total. Together, the District of Columbia and New Jersey had about 200,000 customers out of power. The rate of power restoration in those places was about 5 percent faster and twice as fast, respectively.

Some states, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, escaped the brunt of Irene, so comparison data aren't available.

In North Carolina, all 27,000 outages were restored by Monday morning, the DOE reported. In Pennsylvania, all but 3,600 of the 30,000 who lost power had it back Monday morning. In Delaware, all 22,000 who lost power had it back on, DOE reported.

It's possible that, over time, utilities are doing a better job estimating in advance how many crews they need to respond.

Seth Guikema, an assistant professor in geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is part of a team of researchers working on computer models to help utilities predict more accurately damage from hurricanes – and so enable them to respond faster to storm damage.

A big issue for utilities, he says, is how many crews to line up for an oncoming hurricane. Of course in this recent case, the sudden derecho storm came on with little warning. Still, utilities are gearing up for severe weather – which may enable them to bring back power faster in the future, he says.

"The idea is, if we can give them a better estimate [of wind damage], they can get a more appropriate number of crews," Professor Guikema said in an interview with the Monitor after Irene last year. "It costs ratepayers if they request too many crews. It's a really hard trade-off."