Rock Hill city officials to meet with Duke Energy about power outages

adouglas@heraldonline.comJuly 6, 2013 

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Duke Energy has replaced faulty equipment at one of its Rock Hill substations after four power outages in less than six weeks left thousands of city customers without electricity.

Rock Hill city officials last week demanded a meeting with Duke to talk about the recent outages and to seek assurance that the company’s power reliability will improve.

Most of the city’s electricity supply comes from the Catawba Nuclear Station, which Duke manages.

Duke is responsible for the transmission of electricity to substations in the city, said Jimmy Bagley, the deputy city manager who oversees Rock Hill’s utility services.

Over the past eight months, city officials say the Duke feed to one of their substations has failed five times--once in October 2012, once in May 2013 and three times last month.

In the past, Duke’s service has been great, and Rock Hill has had mostly minor problems with the company’s delivery of power, Bagley said.

“But to have five outages in almost as many months is just ridiculous.”

Duke plans to meet with Rock Hill’s city manager, David Vehaun, and Mayor Doug Echols this week, said company spokesman Ryan Mosier.

“We are aware of the frustrations of city leaders and their customers and we are frustrated as well whenever we do not provide the service our customers rightfully expect,” he said in an e-mail.

Replacement of the transformer at the Rock Hill substation should prevent future problems, Mosier said, adding that reliability of service is a top priority.

“We believe we have made the appropriate fixes to our systems delivering to Rock Hill that will ensure that reliability for years to come.”

Mosier declined to comment further when asked whether the transformer replacement was a planned improvement or a result of recent substation issues.

He also declined to comment on the response time of Duke employees to the substation when equipment has failed, leaving Rock Hill customers without power.

“It wouldn't be appropriate to offer any further comment until after we meet with the city . . . to better understand their concerns,” he said.

Duke’s response time is a concern for city officials, Bagley said.

When a substation goes offline, Rock Hill utility workers can’t access Duke’s equipment and the wait time for a Duke employee to arrive and start repairs has sometimes taken more than one hour, he said.

Customers in Rock Hill aren’t used to long wait times for utility problems to be fixed, he said. Problems in the areas of the system maintained by the city are fixed quickly because all of the city’s employees live locally, he said.

But for problems in Duke’s system, “I can’t do anything about it until (Duke) can get here,” Bagley said.

The recent power outages have not only been inconvenient for residents but also costly, he said. “Our customers are losing business because their doors are shut--it just stops everything,” Bagley said.

When the Duke feed goes offline, the city of Rock Hill loses revenue, too, he said, because they aren’t selling electricity to customers.

Of the recent five substation issues, the average number of customers without power each time was 6,641.

The most widespread power outage left 8,229 customers without electricity for up to 1.5 hours. That June 28 outage caused Piedmont Medical Center to resort to its back up generator for electricity for about 90 seconds.

City officials were able to quickly move the hospital’s power source to another substation in Rock Hill--a plan that’s been in place for a few years, said PMC spokeswoman Amy Faulkenberry.

Hospital officials had direct contact with Bagley and Vehaun, she said, and were able to avoid calling a “Code Black” in the facility.

A “Code Black” requires extra hospital staff to come in while the facility runs on a generator and some lower-priority services such as heating and air-conditioning are shut down.

The recent loss of electricity was the first time in about one year, Faulkenberry said, that the main hospital facility has lost power.

The five recent outages also knocked out traffic signals around Rock Hill, including signals along Cherry, Celanese and Mount Gallant roads. When traffic signals aren’t working, it becomes a safety problem, Bagley said.

During the most recent outage--which affected Rock Hill’s downtown area and parts of Winthrop University around 4:30 p.m. on a Friday--police officers were deployed to direct traffic at intersections with non-working signals.

This week’s meeting with Duke will hopefully present a plan of “corrective action,” Bagley said.

“We’re still a customer, no matter how you shake it,” he said.

“We expect (Duke) to meet reasonable standards. Duke’s been a good company. I’m not knocking their operations--they’ve been pretty reliable and they’ve been pretty good to work with.”

Still, city officials want answers, he said, because substation problems are worse than other electricity service issues such as a circuit failing. Circuit failures may affect up to 1,500 people. One substation in Rock Hill can serve up to 10,000 customers.

When a substation is offline, he said, “the exposure is much greater.

“It’s much more dramatic. The (response) time is taking a whole lot longer than what our customers are used to seeing. And that’s what’s frustrating--there’s not a thing we can do about it.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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