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Another storm, another big question: Why was power out for so long?

More power to you: the lights are back on to most of Thurston County after snow storm

Puget Sound Energy crews restored power to most of the county while tackling a number of sizable repair challenges during recent snowstorms.
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Puget Sound Energy crews restored power to most of the county while tackling a number of sizable repair challenges during recent snowstorms.

Olympia resident Barbara Burgener has lived in Alaska and Eastern Washington, but it wasn’t until she moved to Olympia that she experienced losing power to her home on a regular basis.

In the 22 years that she has called the city home, she has lost power about 10 times, including for 50 hours during recent snowstorms that blew through the area Feb. 8-11.

Burgener and others reached out to The Olympian during the storms, frustrated by the extent of the outages and what they felt was a lack of communication and information about when power would be restored. Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy is the primary utility in Thurston County.

“As we get older, it gets harder,” she said about losing power.

She used a generator during the outage, which supplied enough power to run her refrigerator, a toaster oven and a hot plate.

“I’m not a camper, but I’ve learned to be a camper,” she said.

Burgener doesn’t exactly live in a rural area. In fact, her home is on Governor Stevens Avenue, which is in an Olympia neighborhood located between the South Capitol neighborhood and Tumwater.

A Puget Sound Energy spokesman, however, defended the utility, saying it regularly communicated information about power restoration efforts via its website, social media and a smart phone app. Customers also can reach the utility by phone and report outages to customer service agents at any time, Andrew Padula said.

“Agents do their best to respond to outage complaints,” he said.

But Padula also acknowledged that PSE encountered some challenges during the recent storms.

Eighteen inches of snow

About 18 inches of snow fell in the Olympia area during the storms, according to the National Weather Service. And problems mounted quickly after the first wave of snow dumped about 10 inches Friday night into Saturday morning.

It was during that first storm when a tree fell onto a power substation near The Evergreen State College — a substation that can supply power to thousands of customers — and it went down, Padula said. PSE had to bring in a mobile substation to provide power, he said.

The college was on generator power over the weekend, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, college spokeswoman Allison Anderson said. Power was restored about 7 p.m. Sunday, she said.

During the outage, the cafeteria was operating and the Community Activities Building, a student gathering spot, had lights and heat, she said.

Monday, as PSE was closing in on the final few outages in the county, more snow arrived and knocked out power to a second substation in the Madrona Beach area. The snowfall was deep enough that Padula said at least one PSE crew got stuck in the snow.

But many of the outages were caused by the usual storm-related problems: tree branches and limbs falling onto power lines, or the tree itself leaning into power lines and causing outages.

Olympia resident Burgerner questioned why more isn’t done to trim trees, but Padula said a tree-trimming schedule is posted weekly on the PSE website. Although remember this: Thurston County is just one of 10 counties PSE serves.

Oversight

The state Utility and Transportation Commission, which is based in Olympia but soon will move to Lacey, regulates the rates and services of investor-owned utilities like PSE.

Spokeswoman Kate Griffith said the UTC has received consumer complaints and inquiries related to recent outages, but she couldn’t comment on them because they are active cases.

She pointed out that PSE has a customer service guarantee program that was put to wider use after a major storm blew through the area in January 2012.

“The waiver allowed PSE to automatically provide a $50 refund to all customers who experienced a 120 consecutive-hour power outage during that storm,” Griffith said in an email.

In that storm, some Thurston County residents were without power for a week.

It was during 2012 that frustrations about PSE bubbled to the surface in the form of a grassroots effort to make Thurston PUD, a water utility, a power utility as well to replace PSE in the county. Proposition 1, as it came to be known, was defeated by voters.

Rolf has worked at The Olympian since August 2005. He covers breaking news, the city of Lacey and business for the paper. Rolf graduated from The Evergreen State College in 1990.
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