Singh Gives Thoughts on Lansing Board of Water and Light's Response

Utility company responded to power outages due to ice storm
Thursday, January 9, 2014

Now that the immediate crisis of people without power is coming to a close, I wanted to share some of my thoughts, concerns, and questions that I will be asking regarding the response by public and private utilities during the recent ice storm and power outage in mid-Michigan. There should be a review of the responses by Board of Water and Light (BWL), DTE and Consumers Energy in our area. Other utilities should be reviewed for other parts of the state.

Yesterday’s Lansing City Council Public Hearing regarding the response of the Board of Water and Light provided some answers but opened up even more questions about capacity, emergency preparedness and long-term planning. The public hearing along with an earlier press conference has brought significant concerns to my attention regarding the Board of Water and Light’s response to the crisis.

Here are a few of my thoughts that deal with BWL:

Public Hearings and a Formal Independent Review

• The Lansing City Council should be the first public hearing of many. There should be public hearings in other communities within the BWL service area like East Lansing and Delta Township.

• Since BWL is not regulated by the Public Service Commission, an outside entity should provide an outside assessment of the capacity of BWL and an analysis of how it conducted this recent response to power outage. The independent review should benchmark BWL against industry standards and compare to both public and private utilities in the state.

• On the state government level, there should legislative hearings to review the response by utilities and review of any needed legislation to improve capacity and response in the future.

BWL Management and Governance

• There are a series of questions that have been brought up by the community and local leaders that need to be answered and documented. Though some have been addressed in certain media reports or during the first City Council hearing, these questions and others from the community need to be catalogued and available on-line for the community to understand and review.

BWL Preventative Measures

• What policies and practices does the BWL have in place to prevent a crisis of this nature from occurring?

• For the size of the utility and geographical size of the service area, what are the industry benchmarks for appropriate staff resources dedicated to tree trimming activities throughout the year?

• At what level is BWL staffing and deploying resources for tree trimming services throughout the year?

• Should we have a more aggressive standard regarding how close we cut trees and vegetation to proximity wires? What are industry standards?

• There are reports that cutbacks in municipal forestry services have resulted in more downed wires during this storm. Are these reports accurate?

• What is the role of local communities in working with BWL to either physically cut trees/vegetation or flag trouble areas?

BWL Response to the Storm

  1. Staffing Levels

There has been much discussion regarding how many crews were on duty during the crisis and whether there could have been more brought in from other utilities in the state and region to help. An analysis of the staffing and when new crews were brought in from other utilities to respond to the crisis should be examined. A few of the questions to be part of that analysis:

• What is the industry standard or best practice for staffing the geographic size of a utility of BWL’s size?

• There are reports that other utilities brought in hundreds and thousands of other workers from across the state and surrounding areas. How did BWL assess how many crews were needed and who to ask for support?

• Do other utilities like Consumers Energy and DTE require that one employee be part of every crew for crews brought in during emergencies?

  1. Technology

Reports have suggested that BWL couldn’t provide some communication pieces like outage maps because their technology and upgrades to the smart grid have not been completed.

• What is the BWL technology plan and timelines for smart grid improvements?

• How does that compare to other utilities in the state?

• What are industry standards and best practices for where a utility should be regarding smart grid improvements?

  1. Communications

There has been much written and many people who very eloquently and passionately spoke about the poor communication from BWL and how that impacted them during the prolonged outage. BWL management has agreed that their response was lacking. So the big question is where do we go from here?

• There should be an analysis of each type of communication vehicle that was utilized by BWL during the outage by quantity and effectiveness on each day of the crisis.

• Benchmark the BWL response to how other utilities like Consumers Energy and DTE responded to the crisis.

• What are the best practices on how utilities communicate to municipal partners, hospitals, nonprofits, media and customers during prolonged outages?

• How does BWL compare to those best practices?

• Peter Lark acknowledged a lack of an emergency crisis communication plan. What is the timeline to develop one and how will BWL engage different stakeholders?

• What is BWL social media plan and how was it staffed and implemented during the crisis?

• Much of people’s anxiety originated from not knowing if BWL knew that their power was out because they couldn’t get through to a person or see a map on a website that outlined where outages were. What was the BWL staffing level for hotline services on each day of the crisis? In the future how will BWL utilize other web-based technology to help customers understand the severity of the problem and what measures are being used to restore power?

BWL and the City of Lansing

During the past few years, there has been significant pressure put on BWL to help the City of Lansing meet its budget shortfalls. A thorough independent analysis of these changes should occur that outlines opportunity costs (whether staff time, technology upgrades, or other investments) which could have been made internally in the BWL.

Other Issues to Consider

• Once the crisis is over, it is appropriate for the Board of the BWL to conduct a review and make public statements. I will be interested in their thoughts.

• There should be a review from each community on how they conducted their emergency response during the crisis and how they interacted with their corresponding utility.

• There will be a number of potential legislative items that could be considered in the wake of the crisis. Each item should be reviewed as part of an overall thoughtful strategy. Some of the issues to review:

  • Whether the Public Service Commission (PSC) should regulate or have some level of oversight on municipal utilities like BWL?
  • Should items that the PSC mandates for private utilities, such as outage credits for customers, be implemented legislatively?
  • Providing for geographic representation on the boards of municipal utilities that provide services to other surrounding communities.