Back in blackout

Even before the a long, hot summer, power interruptions have plagued parts of Southwest

The blinking clocks, begging to be reset. The alarm that should have gone off but didn’t. Everyone’s experienced classic symptoms of a power outage at some point. In recent months, a handful of residents independently wrote the Southwest Journal that they’ve experienced more power outages than usual, even before the recent heat wave.

The problems are not Southwestwide, and residents cite different causes.

One problem area is near Lake Calhoun’s north and east shores.

Athena Priest, co-owner of Tin Fish, 3000 East Calhoun Parkway, said one week in late June, her business experienced three outages – one due to a storm. Priest said the Park Board helped for one outage, providing a generator for the restaurant cooler. Priest said they’ve had to take food to the cooler at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church, 3450 Irving Ave. S.

"Generally, I think everyone is frustrated," she said.

A short jog away, members of the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association (CIDNA) grew so frustrated over power interruptions that they beseeched Xcel Energy representatives to attend a June neighborhood meeting.

Kurt Waltenbaugh, an East Calhoun resident and Internet entrepreneur, has a computer log that tracks power interruptions. It listed five outages of an hour or more in three and half weeks.

Other reports have come in from the east side of Lake Harriet, in the Lynnhurst and East Harriet neighborhoods.

And in what has become a long, hot summer, balky electricity has become more than an annoyance.

Neighborhood concern

In recent months, Uptown has been the epicenter for development controversies, centering on building heights and increased traffic.

In Cedar-Isles-Dean, add power to the worries.

Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association (CIDNA) President Chad Larsen said some residents suspect a power grid has been taxed by newer area developments – and with three major condo projects on the horizon, they fear the problems will worsen.

"People have been complaining that, since the Calhoun Beach Club [addition] went in, service has been unreliable," he said.

While he does not call the interruptions a major problem, he said neighborhood has seen multiple outages per season. "In that sense, it hasn’t been reliable," Larsen said.

After three separate developments with 350 new housing units were announced within weeks earlier this year, residents asked for an Xcel Energy meeting.

Xcel’s Dan Pfeiffer said the company recently completed $750,000 worth of improvements to the Cedar-Isles-Dean-area power system. "We’re hoping we’ve turned a corner, if you will, in the reliability," he said, adding that the company has planned for future area growth.

Nevertheless, Larsen said CIDNA is providing Xcel Energy with a list of planned area developments and will watch reliability as the area grows.

Southwest Councilmembers say power problems are on their radar but aren’t overwhelming.

Ironically, Doug Kress, aide to Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) lost power to his Kingfield home the morning a reporter called about the issue. Kress said there hadn’t been many calls to Goodman’s office – but one reason why is that outages are out of the city’s control.

Jon Dybvig, aide to Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) said there had been a few calls, but the trend is downward. "In the past, we’ve been plagued" with power outages, he said; after a major upgrade last summer, the biggest problems seem to have subsided.

Pfeiffer said Xcel commonly gets calls about service disruption, especially when nature takes a turn, such as June’s torrential storms and July’s hot temps. (The two-month streak indicates that in Minnesota, nature seems to turn with regularity.)

Causes of power outages

Aside from natural events, Xcel staffers say many other factors cause outages.

On July 10, an extremely large power outage hit 9,000 customers in the Southwest’s southeast neighborhoods and adjoining suburbs, Xcel Spokesman Paul Adelmann said. A cable failure and backup failure caused the problem.

Another cause: beautiful tree-lined Southwest streets. "The number-one cause of power outages is trees," Adelmann said, adding that tree trimming is a company priority to combat the problem.

However, Adelmann said surging summer power use is a big outage factor.

Adelmann said that stress is why Xcel advocates energy-efficient air conditioners, and offers rebates for people to decrease power usage. (See sidebar below for more information.)

Pfeiffer said that while usage stresses the system, there’s an upside: "The good news is we don’t have any systemic problems."

Not everyone is so sure. Minneapolis State Sen. Scott Dibble said he hasn’t received many recent complaints about Xcel Energy’s service lately, but that it’s been a problem in the past and should be watched closely. (Coincidentally, Dibble called to respond to questions while the Capitol was experiencing a power outage.)

Fear of problems from years past

Dibble said Xcel must abide by strict standards, put in place a few years ago in an agreement with the state Attorney General’s Office.

In 2002, Xcel allegedly misreported outage numbers. A 2003 Xcel document to the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) outlines the power company’s obligations in a settlement agreement.

Xcel must submit compliance reports, review company policies and procedures, review an "Outage Management System," and make reliability improvements, among other things.

Edward Garvey, deputy commissioner of energy and telecommunications for the state Department of Commerce (which oversees power generation), said Xcel Energy has submitted necessary reports, but it’s hard to deduce if a neighborhood area has an upsurge in problems.

He said Xcel Energy’s information is sectorwide – for example, parts of Minneapolis and Edina are lumped together. Still, Garvey’s staff confirms that there has been no upsurge of problems for the large area that includes Southwest.

Dibble said the PUC tracks outage complaints against Xcel Energy and that the utility company faces penalties if they fall behind in that service. (For how to file a complaint, see below left.)

Garvey said the 2003 agreement obligates Xcel Energy to pay penalties for outages. According to its fall filing, residents who experience six or more outages in a year get a $50 credit. The penalty goes up to $50 per interruption, for outages lasting longer than 24 hours.

Garvey also said that if there were many complaints, the PUC would ask the Commerce Department to intervene, investigate and take regulatory action. As of now, "we do not have an official complaint," he said.

Service and upgrades

From 2000 to 2003, Fulton resident Jim Bernstein led the state’s Commerce Department. He said the public should watch Xcel’s performance.

Bernstein, now running for the Minneapolis Park Board, said he monitors the issue. While he has no specifics, he feels Xcel Energy has "slipped."

"Xcel has not kept up with the demands of an increased load of demands in the state," he said.

Pfeiffer, Xcel Energy’s manager of community and government relations, said the company has planned appropriately and has state-mandated resource plans to guide system development.

"We have sufficient resources to meet the needs of our customers today, plus the 15 percent reserve capacity that we’re required to have," he said. "We’re confident we’ve got enough capacity for today’s customers. We’re certainly planning for the future."

Pfeiffer said of the plan filed last fall, "We recognize that there’s about a 3,100-megawatt shortage of electricity when we look out over the next 15 years," he said. Pfeiffer said the future outlook shows the energy system will have a shortage, so Xcel Energy is working to prepare for it.

Based on Xcel Energy’s planning, Pfeiffer said in the past three or four years, "we’ve made over $10 million in investments in the South Minneapolis area, upgrading cable, upgrading transformers in other parts of our systems."

Despite upgrades, Bernstein said fewer Xcel workers are doing maintenance than a decade ago. He also questioned whether there’s enough money put towards upgrades such as transformer replacement, a problem some say is responsible for the small-area outages.

Pfeiffer countered that when a device fails twice in two years – such as a transformer or power cable – Xcel Energy develops a work plan to upgrade the system.

"It’s never an issue of ‘we don’t have the resources to get the job done’," Pfeiffer said. "It’s an issue of tracking the problem, diagnosing [it] correctly, and then designing and implementing the solution."

Still, Garvey said he understands residents’ concerns. He said of Cedar-Isles-Dean fears, "You have a system that seems to already have reliability problems that will actually have more burden put on it the coming year or so."

Garvey said the main question is whether their improvements have focused on fixing the immediate problems or the overall good of the system.

He said it’s like the difference between giving your car an oil change verses a complete overhaul. Garvey said it’s difficult to know. "You just don’t know until the next outage," he said.