Panel to look at weather safeguards for grid reliability

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony this week on the growing issue of weather-related power outages and what to do about it.

The hearing Thursday is being held at the request of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a committee member, to examine whether changes should be made to national reliability standards for electricity.

After last year’s “Snowtober” snow storms left 315,000 Granite State residents without power, Shaheen and her New Hampshire colleague Kelly Ayotte (R) wrote a letter to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff to ask him to review those standards.

“Perhaps most troubling to us is the seeming downward trend in electric reliability for New Hampshire’s utilities,” said the senators in the letter.

They noted that in 2010 and 2011 New Hampshire experienced three major weather-related outages effecting hundreds of thousands of customers.

Shaheen spokesman Jonathan Lipman said the hearing would examine whether action is needed to reduce the occurrence of these events.

“The senator’s concern was over the frequency and severity of outages over the past couple of years after severe weather events,” he said. “So we were looking to get information on some of the numbers on reliability, the standards on reliability and their effectiveness.”

The committee will hear from two New England witnesses, Norwich Public Utilities general manager John Bilda and Thomas B. Getz, former chairman of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission.

Also appearing will be Patricia Hoffman of the Energy Department’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, and an unnamed representative from FERC.

While the committee will focus on grid reliabilities and safeguards, environmentalists say the uptick in storm-related outages may be partially driven by climate change.

Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said her analysis of electric utility records shows that weather-related outages are in fact on the rise.

“As someone who looks at climate change and weather, I would look at that and say, well, common sense would tell me that there’s likely some connection between the fact that we’re having more extreme rainfall events and wind events” and more electrical outages.

But Staudt said utilities tend to blame the increase on outdated infrastructure and other factors not related to a changing climate.

“There are other factors that could be contributing, and there has been no study to my knowledge that has tried to make that careful attribution,” she said.

Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, April 26, at 9:30 a.m. in Dirksen 366.

Witnesses: A representative from FERC; Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary, Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, Energy Department; John Bilda, general manager, Norwich Public Utilities; and Thomas Getz, former chairman, New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission.