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FirstEnergy delayed making repairs

08/31/03

Teresa Dixon Murray
Plain Dealer Reporter

When FirstEnergy Corp. inspected its northern Ohio electrical system in 2001, it found 10,205 common problems such as broken wires and poles. And it fixed 75 percent of them the same year.

Last year, the utility found 13,038 prob lems and fixed only 17 per cent.

The rest - some 10,848 repairs - were to be pushed into 2003 and 2004, accord ing to reports FirstEnergy filed in April with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

While some issues are cosmetic, others could lead to serious problems, such as outages, according to industry experts. And they raise questions about FirstEnergy's overall maintenance across its 13,300-square-mile Ohio territory, which has more than 2 million customers. The unfinished repairs are not believed to be connected to the Aug. 14 blackout that hit northern Ohio, seven other states and Ontario.

The PUCO said that FirstEnergy is not the only utility with a repair blacklog but that it can't compare FirstEnergy's maintenance problems to those of other utilities.

That's because each utility has a different method of reporting maintenance. The FirstEnergy backlog hasn't gone unnoticed at the PUCO.

"It does concern me," said Duane Roberts, utilities specialist and electric policy analyst with the PUCO.

But "a lot of the reasons for [FirstEnergy's] backlog is there were higher-priority projects."

FirstEnergy spokesman Ralph DiNicola downplayed the annual service quality report, noting the items are a mix of aesthetic and service repairs. "Anything that is a reliability issue is immediately addressed," DiNicola said.

Further, Mark Julian, director of energy delivery/technical services for FirstEnergy, said the April report wasn't as up-to-date as it should have been.

A primary reason the 2002 list got so large, Julian said, is that "a lot of this has been taken care of and not taken off the books."

Still, after follow-ups by the PUCO since April, FirstEnergy has agreed to catch up on 2002 and 700 problems left over from 2001, DiNicola said. "We've had conversations that we'd clear the items by the end of the year."

The PUCO hasn't leaned harder on FirstEnergy to clear up the backlog for three reasons:

The problems haven't involved FirstEnergy's 106 worst-performing circuits - 4 percent of its 2,663-circuit system. The bottom 106 have had repeated outages, surges or flickering.

FirstEnergy has met overall system performance expectations set by the PUCO.

The repairs involve FirstEnergy's distribution system of smaller power lines to neighborhoods. The PUCO for now has put a higher priority on major problems, such as transformer failures at five of FirstEnergy's Cleveland-area substations that have exposed thousands to repeated outages. FirstEnergy has fixed or replaced at least four of them.

Robert Burns, a senior research specialist at Ohio State University's National Regulatory Research Institute, said utilities such as FirstEnergy aren't under as much pressure to make repairs to their neighborhood distribution systems as they are to their big transmission systems, which were key to the Aug. 14 blackout. FirstEnergy's distribution problems include broken guy wires, poles or crossarms that need repair or replacing; floating primary wires; clearance problems with telephone or cable lines; and defective lightning arresters.

Floating primary lines, for example, refer to lines on which the conductor has broken loose and could touch the wooden crossarm pole. "If that happened, it would more than likely result in a fire," Roberts said.

Poles that need repair or replacing can also be serious.

"That is the backbone . . . You could have live conductors coming down, which could create a safety hazard to the public."

The problems - which are normal for any utility - were discovered during FirstEnergy's required annual inspection of 20 percent of its circuits.

Gregory Price, senior staff attorney for the PUCO, said the commission is monitoring FirstEnergy's progress on various repairs. "We care a lot and we talk a lot. . . . If they continue to not correct them, that could be a problem in the future."

Today's backlog could be tomorrow's blackout, agreed Thomas Stuart, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Toledo.

"We won't know if they're bad problems until outages start showing up," Stuart said.

Price said Ohio utilities will face closer scrutiny beginning this fall when they have to start reporting outages of less than one minute and answer for the worst 8 percent of their circuits - twice the number reported now. If outages increase in FirstEnergy's next report, due next spring, the PUCO will expect to see a continued rise in consumer complaints to the company and to the PUCO, Price said.

FirstEnergy told the PUCO it had 503 voltage, reliability or safety complaints in 2001. That number more than doubled to 1,355 in 2002.

DiNicola of FirstEnergy said the volume of complaints is minuscule considering the utility has more than 2 million northern Ohio customers.

"Our reliability is continuing to improve," he said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

tmurray@plaind.com, 216-999-4113


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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