Friday, May 17, 2013

TOP STORY >> First Electric opens doors to media

Leader staff writer

“We bill for kilowatt hours, but what we sell is service,” Don Crabbe, the chief executive officer of First Electric Cooperative, recently told The Leader and a local TV news anchor at the utility’s media day.

The focus of the presentation was how First Electric responds to outages, especially those caused by severe weather, like the Christmas Day snowstorm.

The provider spent $1.6 million on system repairs after that storm, said Larry Harp, vice president of operations. The outages peaked at 30,000 and power was restored in eight days.

But those figures don’t measure up to the 2000-2001 ice storm, which caused twice the damage and affected all five of the utility’s service districts.

When outages occur, line crews must repair parts of the system in the following order:

• high-voltage transmission lines,

• substations,

• main distribution lines,

• tap lines, which provide power to transformers,

• and individual homes.

Marshall Smith has been a lineman for 15 years. He helped restore power to First Electric customers during the recent snowstorm.

Smith said, “It was horrible, finding broken poles. (We) couldn’t access them. We work so many hours, and then we’re made to rest. You want everyone on before you go. For the most part, the public is very understanding. There is always a first (restoration) and a last.”

He also described how a New York City resident opened his home to First Electric crews who were helping out during Hurricane Sandy.

First Electric has five districts that do not touch, said Tonya Everhart, vice president of marketing and communications. First Electric has approximately 70,000 members, 88,000 meters and 9,300 miles of lines.

That system was built with three- to five-year potential growth in mind. Crabbe said, “You have to design everything for that peak demand.”

The utility employs 125 operations personnel, including 95 linemen.

Everhart said, “That makes us unique and poses some issues.”

Harp noted that the separate districts are difficult to manage at times but also have an advantage. He said, “It’s rare that a weather event hits every district we have.” That means crews from other districts can be called to help a district with major outages.

Harp explained why restoration might slow down at the end of the process even though crews are doing the same kind of work.

“We might replace one pole and get 2,000 on. We might replace a pole later and get two people on,” he said.

First Electric’s priority is to work on equipment that will restore the most people in the least amount of time, Harp continued.

Response to an outage can also be held up if crews can’t get to places because of obstacles like snow or downed trees.

Harp said, “If they are going to be at risk, we’re going to tell them to wait.”

Crews will also wait if they see that the wind or something else will cause damage to a piece of equipment if they replace it immediately.

“There comes a point when you’re not accomplishing anything,” Harp noted.

Prevention is also part of addressing outages.

Tim Felty, right- of-way maintenance supervisor, is responsible for making sure vegetation and trees near the poles are trimmed or removed so that they don’t cause a service disruption.

His 10-member crew inspects 20,000 wood poles a year. Maintenance of vegetation and trees is done on a five-year rotation for every part of the system, Felty explained.

Some require maintenance every four years while others, especially in rural areas with few tall plants, can wait six years for an inspection, he continued.

There are 50 substations the right-of-way crew works on every year.

Felty said the utility started investing in right of way eight years ago, when a new general manager was hired.

Since then the right-of-way program has gained a larger staff and the ability to do things such as offer residents a gift certificate so they can purchase a smaller tree to replace the one First Electric must remove.

But the new trees must be planted outside the right of way.

The most common complaint is that the brush isn’t cleaned up right away because that crew is a couple of days behind the mechanical tree trimmer, Felty said.

He added, “We try to talk to all of our members before work is done.”

Trees that are removed are cut into firewood for the residents to use, sell or give away.

About the right-of-way program, Crabbe said, “We try to fix things before they break.”

A lineman is always on call and has a First Electric truck parked at his home, ready to drive to a nearby outage, the CEO continued.

First Electric is a nonprofit company that shares revenues that exceed its operating costs with its customers, Everhart continued.

Everhart noted that the provider returned $7.89 million — the highest amount ever — to members last year.

First Electric also allows its members to participate in Operation Roundup. Participants agree to have their bills rounded up to the next whole dollar. The extra change is used to send students who live in the utility’s service area on a trip to Washington.

“We’re not just an electric provider. We are a partner in our community,” Everhart said.