CRT Grills BWL in Five-Hour Session

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"What were you thinking going out of town?"

The first question from Community Review Team chairman Mike McDaniel to Board of Water and Light General Manager J. Peter Lark wasn't planned.

"It seemed to me to be sort of a question we needed to get out of the way," said McDaniel, "which is why I made that decision to ask that first sort of at the last minute. I called an audible."

The question set the tone for a meeting that would last more than five hours as a team of volunteers fired questions at BWL executives Monday, in order to evaluate a Lansing utility's response to an ice storm.

For the record, Lark said he thought things were under control, but now calls the Christmas trip a mistake.

"Were I to do it all over again I would not have done that," said Lark. "On the other hand I do not feel that the restoration was compromised by my absence. I believe we had the best possible personnel on the ground. I think they would tell you my absence did not affect them one bit in the restoration. And I was available at all times. Nonetheless, it was a mistake."

It was the first of many answers provided by the Board of Water and Light's top executives Monday, to questions ranging from the broad to the minute, covering everything from storm preparation to storm prevention for the future.

The CRT is evaluating the BWL's performance after a December ice storm left tens of thousands without power, some for nearly two weeks as the utility scrambled to repair downed lines that were so numerous, BWL stopped counting.

"This was much larger than what we had experienced before," said Dave Bolan, BWL's Director of Operations.

"It just kept getting bigger and bigger," agreed Manager of Electrical Systems Lynn McKinistry. "The outages just kept increasing."

BWL executives testified they felt prepared for the storm, monitoring the weather days in advance and advising crews to be ready to work when the storm was forecast to hit, but the proportions were unprecedented.

Lark estimated 40 percent of the grid went offline. Also hurting: the utility lost its Outage Management System just days after the storm, Lark said. The effects were palpable.

How much a functioning system would have aided restoration is debatable, Lark said, but it certainly would have solved some communication problems. BWL ditched its OMS on the second day of the outages, relying instead on Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and even handwritten notes. That made it difficult to keep track of which homes still lacked electricity as more and more areas were restored. The phone system it linked to also experienced difficulty. BWL executives say the system just wasn't prepared to handle 250,000 calls a day as it received.

"If the OMS had worked it would have been night and day as far as getting information," said Lark. "We did fix it and it won't happen again."

There were issues with the technology in the months before the storm, but they were thought to be resolved before the storm hit. The utility's IT manager testified that if there were an ice storm today, the OMS would work.

Lark also gave himself heat for announcing that the majority of homes would have their power restored by Christmas.

Rather than saying to people 'I don't know when you'll come back, it will probably be in ten days, I thought it was better to say we have the majority of those people back by the close of business by Christmas, by the end of Christmas," Lark said, adding that 90 percent of customers were back by then. "Unfortunately if you were in the 10 percent, you were unhappy and when you heard a majority would be back by Christmas, that meant to you that you would be back. So that might have been a mistake on my part."

There are other improvements to be made, Lark said. In fact, his utility has drafted 54 points to be improved upon or implemented moving forward, many of which have already been started. Lark promised that each of the 54 points would be addressed.

"I cannot control a 40 percent outage that mother nature deals us," Lark said. "But we can do way better communications and we can get back faster and we will."

Already in place: new mutual aid agreements with other municipalities. Plus, Lark said he wants to increase tree trimming operations to prevent such disastrous effects in a future ice storm. It is estimated that 75 percent of outages from the December storm were caused by falling limbs.

Many of the CRT members called the meeting informative and educational.

"I'm very satisfied with today," said Mike McDaniel, the chairman. "I think it was a chance for us to say ok we need a little more detail here than what we heard in some of the presentations they made in previous meetings and I think that we were able to do that. I think they've answered most of the big questions."

The team still has thousands of pages of emails and documents to sort through as it prepares its final report, which is expected by March 31.

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