Looking ahead

By Andy Balaskovitz

Ice storm 2013: Anger, an apology and a promise to determine what went so wrong

Frustrated, angered and disheartened Board of Water and Light customers had their three minutes Monday night to face those responsible for the utility’s handling of a nine-day old ice storm that left some of them still without power.

For three hours, speaker after speaker demanded accountability for the way BWL power line repairmen were dispatched and for the ineffective way it communicated problems with residents. Why weren’t more sent out to make repairs? Why didn’t they know whether BWL knew if their power was out? More than one speaker called for the resignation of General Manager J. Peter Lark.

When Lark had his chance to speak shortly before 10 p.m. Monday, he was apologetic. The utility was overwhelmed by the sheer number of outages, he said, struggling to put the recovery effort into context.

“No utility in Michigan has ever lost 40 percent of its customers” at one time, Lark said. “Every square mile of our utility was affected.”

The repair crews dispatched by the utility included spotters and tree-trimmers. These work alongside linemen who actually repair the electrical circuits that restore light and heat to properties.

Lark said initial media reports of five line crews (with three people to a crew) were incorrect, though the State Journal defended initial crew numbers it reported, saying it was what the utility provided them. On Monday, Lark said 25 crews were dispatched early on to assess damage and remove down power lines.

“If it came out of our office and was not correct, I apologize for that as well,” Lark said. In the final days of repairs, he said 32 crews were accompanied by 32 support crews in the field.

Lark said he was “assured” by his operations staff that BWL had an “optimum level of crews on the ground to complete the restoration as timely as possible.”

“We are going to have to do a self-assessment, we are going to have to look at this. We are not doing that now. We are doing that as soon as we get all the power restored,” he said. Lark promised that would happen by the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, 10 days following the ice event.

While it may take some time to understand whether BWL had enough line crews working to restore power, there’s a virtually unanimous opinion that it botched its communication efforts from day one. “On that point, it is clear we disappointed our customers,” Lark said.

BWL claimed early on in press releases that it was “aware of its outage areas,” but even as late as Sunday some locations had not been logged in its system. That’s because, as Lark said on Monday, the utility’s “outage management system” is not “fully operational.” BWL has been working on it for years, he said. While it has worked just fine till now for smaller outages, it wasn’t prepared for the relatively large volume on Dec. 22.

“Yes, our system is in need of upgrades, particularly as it relates to information technology,” Lark said. The utility took three steps to improve that — posting streets with outages, opening three customer-service centers and extending hours for the department that gives certain free tools to contractors — but did so a week after the storm hit. Why? Because much of it wouldn’t have been feasible in the chaotic early days of the storm, Lark said.

BWL plans to unroll portions of a smart-grid system in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Yet Lark’s presentation seemed to raise a fundamental question about the BWL’s stature as a utility. He cited an award-winning tree-trimming program and other accolades since he was hired in 2007, but then said the utility’s lack of technological advancement was because the BWL is small and can’t afford to risk leading the way in front of larger, private utilities.

“It is important for us at BWL to not always be on the cutting edge of this technology,” he said.

A question raised during the outages and again during Monday´s meeting was the nature of BWL´s operations plan. Last week, the utility did not respond to requests from City Pulse to release the plan.

However, after questioning from Council members, Lark promised it would be posted to the BWL website on Tuesday. (It was posted around noon Tuesday.)

He also said he’s not aware of BWL having an emergency communications plan. Councilwoman A’Lynne Boles, who commended Lansing’s fire chief Monday night for employing one, wondered why BWL didn’t have the same thing.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, BWL still had 650 customers without power but promised to have it fully restored to its service area by midnight.

Altogether, 57 people — from dejected residents still without power to area elected officials — spoke up Monday, almost unanimously to criticize the board and its management. Their comments reflected a growing disenchantment with Lansing´s utility and its management.

Just one person, Joy Gleason, posed any defense of BWL, other than for the work of its crews. She contended its recent performance was atypical and warned customers that rates would undoubtedly be higher with a non-publicly owned utility.

She didn’t speak publicly, but state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, was in the crowd Monday night. On Sunday, her office issued a press release saying it was “totally unacceptable” for BWL customers to still be without power. And its communications was not only “poor customer service, it’s a significant public safety issue that remains unaddressed.”

State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, issued his own press release Monday, calling for Michigan Public Service Commission oversight of BWL. He was the first to address the Council on Monday: “It’s time we have an outside entity do a full investigation and make sure there is a plan in place for the next emergency.”

Lark said once power is restored, the next three steps will be to hold public meetings, prioritize an upgraded communications system and review the utility’s response efforts.

It sounds like the first steps in mending a broken relationship. For, as outgoing At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries said Monday during his last meeting: “I’m hearing from people about the loss of confidence in the Board of Water and Light and its operations.”