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Grid operators gave AEP five minutes to shut off power to thousands of homes in June

Andy Chow

Top executives for AEP Ohio and PJM Interconnection appeared before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to explain the events that caused more than a quarter of a million people to lose power in June.

The severe storms on June 13 took out thousands of power lines and a heat wave the next day ramped up demand on the energy grid. Michael Bryson, senior vice president of operations for PJM Interconnection — which operates the grid for 13 states and Washington, D.C. — said the transmission damage and high demand led to “overloaded lines.”

Bryson said several transmission lines “tripped” between 1:40 p.m. and 1:58 p.m. on June 14, that’s when PJM issued what’s known as a load shed directive. Bryson said AEP then had five minutes to follow that directive and shut off power to the affected areas.

“Without this action, additional, more widespread outages would likely occur,” said Bryson.

Nearly 250,000 customers lost their power that week in June and many of those were forced outages due to the load shed directive for AEP's Marion substation, located on the south side of Columbus.

The utility executives appeared before the PUCO Wednesday for a standard review of the mass outages, but the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel wants an extensive investigation. The consumers’ counsel has said the PUCO should hire an independent auditor and conduct local hearings to examine what went into deciding which neighborhoods to take offline. The office noted that several low-income and high-risk neighborhoods lost power.

A PUCO commissioner asked AEP if the company could have forced outages in other neighborhoods to “spread the pain” of losing power.

“When we come down to it, these were on specific circuits so whatever was connected to that facility where we had to maintain load in a safe manner — within its limits — it had to be on that facility,” said Toby Thomas, AEP senior vice president for energy delivery.

Marc Reitter, AEP president and COO, said the company is still learning from the events that took place in June to increase transmission reliability. Reitter said the load shed directive helped avoid a much larger problem. He referenced the massive 2003 blackout that forced 50 million people to lose power in Ohio and up through the northeast region of the U.S. and Canada.

A specific goal mentioned by Reitter was to get more customers to sign up for AEP’s digital notification system, to immediately alert people of service disruption.

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