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Residents near Houston angered by power outages

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith December 9th, 2020
For business

Many residents are angered by repeated outages in their area.

Brighton Place residents are frustrated with CenterPoint Energy, the regulated utility that supplies their power. That’s because they’re experiencing a large number of power outages throughout the year. Brighton Place is a neighborhood in the town of Spring Valley, located near Houston.

Grocery chain H-E-B complained about the outages, which they said sometimes occurred daily. The grocer explained these outages forced their stores to throw out significant quantities of spoiled food. One local resident decided to buy a backup generator to keep the lights on when the grid fails. Another resident believes an outage is why his $4,000 refrigerator broke down after four years of use.

Peter Lovie, a retired engineer, told the Houston Chronicle that he experienced at least three or four outages this year. Each outage lasted an hour or longer. As a result, he chose to invest more than $10,000 in a generator powered by natural gas.

Other residents in Brighton Place believe part of the problem is the large number of trees, which often tangle with power lines and poles. Matt Arowood, president of the local homeowners’ association, said CenterPoint has not trimmed trees close to power lines outside his home for more than six years. According to the utility, it trims trees near power lines every five years.

Complaints cost CenterPoint large rate hike

CenterPoint asked for a $161 million rate hike in January. However, H-E-B’s complaints played a major part in the Public Utilities Commission cutting the request to $13 million. The utility also accepted a reduction in its requested equity return from 10 percent to 9.4 percent.

Outside of extreme storms, CenterPoint says its power supply to Spring Valley works 99.97 percent of the time.

“But even with 99.97 percent reliability, we understand that for those customers experiencing an outage, especially when many are at home more than they have been in the past, even momentary outages can be disruptive,” said CenterPoint spokeswoman Alicia Dixon. “We’re committed to working with those customers to resolve their issues.”

Some customers disagree, arguing that CenterPoint’s has not shown a readiness to work with them. James Zoes tried for many years to resolve the outages at his mother’s home. Zoes told the Chronicle that CenterPoint only got involved after he threatened legal action.

Community complaints can force improvements

Residents in other parts of the Houston area raised similar complaints in the past. In 2016, homeowners in Sienna Plantation, a suburb southwest of Houston, complained about an “epidemic” of power outages.

Like with Brighton Place, CenterPoint blamed the interruptions on the impact of vegetation and wild animals. After complaints from residents, the utility reached an agreement with the PUC in 2016 to spend $1 million to fix several issues with the power grid. The improvements included protection from wires against damage by squirrels and lightning strikes. This agreement also required an increased effort to trim back trees close to power lines.

Some residents remained skeptical, saying that the real problem is an overstretched electrical grid that can’t cope with population growth. “It seems to me they did not anticipate or prepare for the build-out of such a large community when they put in the power,” a Sienna Plantation resident told Houston Public Media.

A broader problem in Texas

The number and length of outages in Spring Valley stand out, with one neighborhood experiencing a total of 8.9 hours without power over the past year. But the problem of outages is not unique to CenterPoint and the Houston area.

Figures from the Energy Information Administration show in 2018, the latest year for which statistics are available, customers in the Texas experienced about 1.6 power outages.

Some utilities performed worse than average. The Upshur Rural Electric Co-operative supplies power to 10 counties in northeast Texas. It had an average of five outages per customer lasting an average of 20 hours in total.

In 2019, Texas customers filed more than 5,500 complaints with the Public Utilities Commission, according to data published by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power. These complaints logged by the PUC marked the highest annual total since the 2015 fiscal year.

Quality of service complaints include “power surges and power outages”. These complaints rose by 50.2 percent during 2019 compared to the previous year. The increase in complaints was only higher in the category of switch holds, which occurs when a customer is kept from switching providers due to unpaid bills.

 

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views and at the Canadian Labour Institute.

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