John Hollenhorst ReportingThe Utah Public Service Commission opened an investigation today to find out why the holiday snowstorm did so much damage to the power grid and why repairs took so long. Hundreds of thousands of Utahns lost electricity, some for as long as five days.
Utah Power and its parent companies got what some are calling a grilling, or even a barbecue. Irate customers and public officials hit them with a barrage of criticism. But clearly the company itself is doing some corporate soul-searching.
The company's main defense: heavy wet snow brought down the lines.
Bob Moir, Senior V.P. Pacificorp: “The moisture content of the snow was about six times what it normally is.”
The company's primary admission: a breakdown in the computerized telephone complaint system.
Amanda Nelson, V.P. for Pacificorp: “And it meant that some customers were not able to get through.”
At the public hearing, not exactly a guilty plea from the company, but certainly an apology.
Bill Landels, Exec. V.P., Pacificorp: “From top to bottom, we are truly sorry and we feel this. As we go forward, this has been a real blow to us.”
The three vice presidents have accents that reflect Utah Power's distant ownership. Utah Power was taken over in the early 90's by Pacificorp, in the late 90's by Scottish Power. Pacificorp remains the target of choice for critics who say the Portland-based company ran Utah Power into the ground.
Eric Nielson, Customer: “And I apologize if Scottish Power thought they were buying a Mercedes with 10,000 miles, and they discovered when they bought Pacificorp, they really got a Yugo with 100,000 miles.”
Critics say the storm simply revealed problems that festered for years, including nine major outage events in the last three years.
Irene Rees, Utah Div. of Public Utilities: “And so it looks like this is a frequent problem.”
Roger Ball, Utah Committee of Consumer Services: “This suggests that there is in fact a pattern.”
Residents complained about seemingly endless days without power.
Joy Bushnell, Customer: “For days we saw no trucks in our area, none. I mean, we were driving our car, mainly to stay warm, but to see if trucks were on the way.”
Wendy Morgan, Customer: “There are some people whom this is life-threatening for. Those are the ones that I’m concerned about.”
Dr. Richard Drake, Salt Lake County: “I went and attended to about seven different clients who are in home health care settings, totally dependent on power. This is abysmal.”
The Public Service Commission says the investigation is just getting under way. It's possible that tougher regulations may result. But some critics say the relatively weak regulation in Utah is a big part of the problem.