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Story Last modified at 9:13 p.m. on Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Outages spark debate
MEA promises improvements following holiday power outages

Alaska Star


A Matanuska Electric Association crew works on power lines in Eagle River in this undated photograph. In the wake of public concerns regarding recent holiday outages, MEA added a new power line in the Brendlwood subdivision and promises better lines of communication during outages.
Photo courtesy of Matanuska Electric Association

Matanuska Electric Association has installed a new underground power line in one Eagle River subdivision and pledges to do a better job overall when it comes to updating its members during power outages.

The changes come in response to mounting criticism from Eagle River residents over a spate of recent power outages – all falling on major holidays - and an automated phone outage reporting system that provides scant information as to just when the lights and heat might come back on.

Nearly 5,000 Eagle River residents went dark for at least a few hours on Christmas Day. But hundreds also lost power on Thanksgiving Day and New Year's Day, mostly residents of the Brendlwood subdivision above North Eagle River Loop Road.

Numerous frustrated residents voiced their concerns during a forum the utility held Jan. 6 at the request of several citizens. About 50 people showed up for the Thursday evening forum in a meeting room at the Chugiak-Eagle River branch library.

Before things got under way, MEA spokeswoman Cheryll Heinze set one brief but telling ground rule: No cursing.

"We have had some angry people talking to our linemen in not so nice words," Heinze said.

The crowd remained civil, but emotions ran high.

Concerns largely centered on what was causing all the outages and why it was so hard to get information about when the power was coming back on.

Several people expressed frustration that callers to MEA's outage reporting phone line were met with a recorded message saying something to the extent of, "We are aware of this outage. There's no need to call us again."

Brendlwood resident Debra Gilley had a friend file a post on MEA's Facebook page notifying them that her power was still out after the site administrator posted an item saying electricity had largely been restored. She never heard back.

Tom Norbert said he and his wife sat in their home on Kaskanak with their 6-month-old and 2-year-old children watching the inside temperature drop and wondering when the heat was coming back on.

"We want more effective communication," Norbert told the MEA officials at the forum. "We need from you to tell us to expect it to be a certain amount of time."

Fixes in place, in the works

Crews installed a new, underground line to replace the overhead feeder line that was causing at least some of the problems in Brendlwood, said MEA's operations director, Tony Zellers.

Heinze on Monday outlined some additional ideas MEA is considering in response to issues raised at the forum:

• use community councils to spread word of a pending outage from a forecasted storm;

• hourly updates on the MEA automated outage phone line, as well as Twitter and Facebook, if the rough duration of an outage is known;

• place "real people" on the phone lines in case of a large outage or holiday.

A problem with access at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will be resolved by a more direct communication pathway with commanders, Heinze said.

Usually MEA also provides updates via radio stations KMBQ-FM (99.7) and Country Legends (100.9) but Heinze said she couldn't raise anybody there because of the holiday. She said this week that she plans to get cell phone numbers for station managers.

Stretched system

MEA officials said they are doing the best they can with a 50-year-old system that's been allowed to fall into disrepair.

General manager Joe Griffith blamed previous MEA managers for holding down rates for 15 years "by not doing clearing and maintenance on the system."

More money, especially from the state, will be necessary to fix ongoing transmission issues, Griffith said. The last year the state kicked in significant money to fund Railbelt transmission or generation systems was in 1984, for the Bradley Lake project and the intertie from Willow to Healy, he said.

It could cost close to $1 billion to fix the transmission system from Homer to Fairbanks, Griffith said, and $10 billion to upgrade the power generation system.

The utility operates 4,000 miles of line with just 17 linemen to handle repairs, MEA officials said.

"It's almost scary how stretched we are," Griffith said.

Several people at the forum told MEA to make that clear to its members so they can write letters to their legislators.

Officials also explained why the Christmas Day outage took so long to resolve for some in Brendlwood.

Relay equipment sensed a ground fault and knocked off line a major 115-volt transmission line leading from the Briggs Tap on Fort Richardson. Linemen never did find the cause, though they suspect snow-laden tree branches, Zellers said.

Compounding the problem, he said, was the fact that a bad contact meant the utility couldn't get the line back up remotely. Instead, a crew had to drive down.

A team of linemen en route to an outage in Willow was diverted to Fort Rich.

Then, inexplicably, MEA's repair truck got held up for nearly an hour at the Fort Rich gate by an unexpected security search, Heinze said.

"For forty years, we've had complete access," she said.

Once the problem at the substation was resolved, the crew turned around to head back to Willow.

Meanwhile, when the Briggs Tap line came back on, the surge from all those people with restored power probably caused a failure in the smaller feeder line that runs up Sun Beau and between War Admiral and 20 Grand.

Locals reported seeing a section of the line, ablaze, on the ground.

But MEA didn't find out that 212 people in Brendlwood were still without power until 45 minutes later, Heinze said. Then they had to get a crew back to Eagle River.

Both Heinze and Griffin noted they have generators at home.

"You pull the switch and things go," Griffin said. "Don't tell anybody I said that."

On Monday, Heinze said MEA is considering purchasing small generators for sale to members, but noted that's "only an idea at this point."

After the forum, several people thanked MEA for coming down to Eagle River.

"I commend them for coming down here and taking their lumps," Norbert said. "It shows us they care."

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.