At the time of this writing, it’s been a full week since there was power at my home. I live within OG&E’s electrical grid, so when it comes to being without power this past week, I’m nothing special. Many of OG&E’s customers had no power for days, and some will have no power for well over a week. By the time power is restored to everyone in their service area, OG&E’s own estimate is that it will have taken ten full days to repair all the damage from Oklahoma’s latest ice storm.
Ice storms are bears, no doubt about it. They are very hard on trees, and if the roads ice over, they are very hard on cars. But roads, for the most part, were not an issue during Oklahoma’s “Icemageddon” of 2020. The problem was the extra weight of the ice on trees, wires and poles. And what we discovered was that Oklahoma’s electric power grid, once again, was not up to the challenge.
Fact is, Oklahoma’s power grid isn’t up to much of Oklahoma’s weather. Every time the electricity goes out, which is far too often, we hear the same old thing. “The wind was hard;” “that was a lot of ice;” “a lot of rain fell, and there was lightning.” Then there are the familiar deflections: “Our crews are working overtime;” “Our crews are working in harsh conditions day and night;” and “We’ve hired crews from out-of-state and are working tirelessly.” No doubt, the deflections are true, and the linemen working to restore power deserve respect, but should it be necessary to put them at such risk? Do poles HAVE to snap in such high numbers?
I grew up in North Texas. I’ve lived in Oklahoma almost six years. Something I’ve noticed about the weather in this part of the country is that it’s extreme. Warm, clear days turn into thunderstorms so thick that the streetlights come on as the sky turns dark as night in the middle of the day. Summer-like weather in the morning can turn into a hard freeze by nightfall. Rain can come in buckets; hail shatters windshields; wind blows hard and gusty; lightning flashes like paparazzi at the Oscars; and ice seems to come out of nowhere.
Wind, snow, rain, ice, and lightning are ubiquitous in Oklahoma, but they always seem to be a surprise for OG&E and its grid.
During my first year in Oklahoma, there was an ice storm. The electricity failed for at least two days, long enough that we had to buy a generator to keep refrigerated food from spoiling.
A year or so later, there was a storm in Muskogee with some hard wind – not a tornado, mind you – just hard wind. We had a lightning strike that same night that popped a breaker on the high wire near my house. We were without power for four days in summer when the fix would have taken five minutes to accomplish, but every available body was in Muskogee replacing poles.
And now we have 2020. Everybody is talking about trees toppling and breaking, crashing the electric wires. No doubt, that’s true; I’ve seen the pictures. Nobody can be expected to anticipate trees uprooting due to ice. But, some of the pictures of broken electrical poles flat on the ground don’t show a tree anywhere close.
The reason I and my neighbors are constantly dumping gas into generators for extended periods every couple of years is not so much because of the weather, which is remarkably predictable in that we know the wind will blow hard and there will be storms, sometimes of the ice variety. Instead, it’s more about rotten electrical poles, and maybe untrimmed trees. OG&E and other electric providers simply are not maintaining their grids.
Admittedly, I’ve never been an electric pole inspector, but old, rotten poles are not that hard to spot. I once tried to complain about poles that had snapped some miles from my house in an effort to find out if the Corporation Commission was paying any attention to the problem. I’d passed by the poles that had broken and noticed they were in bad shape for years before. What I got for my trouble in calling the Corporation Commission was a career bureaucrat only interested in whether repairs were made, and not one bit interested in preventing problems in the first place.
OG&E is a private, for-profit company with a monopoly granted by government to provide electricity within a specific territory. Because it’s a monopoly, it is heavily regulated by the Corporation Commission, which is supposed to prevent what monopolies do – charge a high price for low-quality service. Oklahoma has the lowest electricity rates in the nation, and OG&E’s service is decent enough during good weather. Where OG&E falls woefully short, and the Corporation Commission deserves to carry at least some of the blame, is during less-than-ideal weather conditions, obviously because the grid is not properly maintained. OG&E, from what I’ve seen, seems to only replace poles after sending some of its customers back to the nineteenth century when the poles break.
OG&E is asking for the Corporation Commission to increase the rates it charges to customers in order to upgrade its grid. But while there is an argument for the upgrade OG&E wants to do, it doesn’t appear to be about replacing rotten poles with new ones.
Before OG&E’s customers should have to pay higher rates, how about an investigation into OG&E and the Corporation Commission? Cindy Byrd has proven she’s pretty good at auditing private companies, like EPIC charter schools, which by the way, is NOT a monopoly. How about an audit of OG&E, which IS a monopoly that its customers have no choice but to patronize? Let’s find out how often they replace poles as part of general maintenance as opposed to only replacing them when they break. Let’s find out how much of a revolving door between the Corporation Commission’s staff and OG&E there is. Let’s find out the last time the Corporation Commission even asked OG&E about compromised reliability due to inadequate maintenance. Let’s find out the financial cost to small businesses and homeowners and crippling what is supposed to be a modern city from having lost power for a week, or more.
To put it bluntly, the Corporation Commissioners need to do their jobs, investigate the state-granted OG&E monopoly, and make sure Oklahoma’s electric rate payers get quality service, not just in the best weather conditions, but in inclement weather as well, even if it means a modest rate increase. But if the Corporation Commission won’t do their jobs, let’s change the constitution so that they experience some real oversight from the legislature.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.