Washington regulators have issued a generally favorable report card on Washington Water Power Co.’s performance during last year’s ice storm.
But that emergency and others around the state this winter, plus the looming deregulation of the electricity industry, prompted the Washington Utility and Transportation Commission to authorize a study of operations by all utilities during periods of crisis.
In a letter released Friday, the commission called WWP’s response to the storm “well-organized and well-executed.”
Coordination with local emergency managers was “very good.”
Contractors called in to assist, the commission noted, considered the logistical support they received “excellent.”
The Nov. 19 storm that coated parts of the area with ice up to 1-inch thick wiped out power for more than two weeks in some areas.
At its peak, more than 100,000 WWP customers in Washington and North Idaho were without electricity. Thousands more served by other utilities also were affected.
The outages were the worst ever experienced by local utilities, who summoned help from as far away as Portland and British Columbia to clean up the mess.
At one time, WWP had about 70 crews working to restore service, more than five times its in-house force of trucks and linemen.
But consumer complaints to the commission prompted an inquiry into the company’s response to the emergency. In February, the commission held a meeting in Spokane to take testimony from customers, contractors and WWP officials.
The commission letter addressed to Tom Dukich, WWP manager for rates and tariffs, was a report on that hearing.
Although the commission did not fault the utility’s performance, the letter says Mark Anderson, a former employee of the State Energy Office who was involved in emergency planning, will work with the company and others to reassess crisis operations.
He will look at existing plans, how companies set priorities for reconnecting service, training, and what technology might improve restoration efforts.
“We expect this dialogue with utilities will result in improved planning for the future of all companies,” the letter says.
Another group will study the way utilities staff and manage their customer communications centers during outages.
Doug Kilpatrick, the commission’s electric industry coordinator, said Anderson is expected to produce a report on how to enhance utility preparedness and how utilities can share lessons they learn dealing with their own disasters.
But the commission also wants guidelines that will guarantee the quality and safety of electric service, which is one of the standards Gov. Gary Locke set for deregulation of the industry.
Deregulation will allow consumers to pick their energy supplier.
“That’s a situation that affects more than just one company,” Kilpatrick said.
“I think we’ll see more preparedness coming out of this sort of process,” added commission spokeswoman Marilyn Meehan.
She said the commission members have avoided even the perception that they were trying to micromanage utilities. But an ongoing relationship may smooth communications between the utilities and their customers in future disasters, she said.
The commission does not regulate public utilities like Inland Power & Light Co., which also sustained heavy ice damage.
WWP spokesman Rob Strenge said the letter indicates the commission is taking a constructive approach to working with the utilities.
“It’s a fairly broad view of not just the storm but of the entire reliability issue,” he said.
The company already has had preliminary talks with Anderson, Strenge noted, and better customer education efforts - another commission recommendation - are already in the works.
“Everything they’ve come up with, we’re more than willing to give whatever work the commission wants,” he said.