The N.C. Utilities Commission had plenty of muscle to investigate Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electricity utility, for the way the Charlotte company mishandled its corporate merger with former Progress Energy five years ago. But the Commission has little say over the ongoing power outage in the Outer Banks.
The seven commissioners, all gubernatorial appointees, can’t call an investigation or audit, or issue penalties or fines in a power outage that required the evacuation of more than 50,000 visitors to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands last week.
The affected customers are served by the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative and the Tideland Electric Membership Corp., which together serve about 9,000 customers in the Outer Banks. The power was lost July 27 when a contractor working on Bonner Bridge accidentally severed the only transmission line bringing electricity to the island.
Utility crews have worked continuously to restore power, and on Thursday, Dare County officials said Hatteras Island would be reopened to visitors at noon on Friday.
The Utilities Commission has watched all this mostly from the sidelines. All it could do in response to the outage was to request an update, a presentation that lasted 20 minutes on Monday at the public agency’s office in Raleigh. The update was provided by the N.C. Electric Membership Corp., the Raleigh organization that supplies power to the state’s 26 electric membership cooperatives, which in turn provide electricity to some 1 million homes and businesses in North Carolina.
Under state law, the Utilities Commission has limited authority over the state’s electric membership cooperatives, said Sam Watson, the general counsel of the Utilities Commission. The co-ops, created in the 1930s and 1940s to supply power to rural areas that electric utilities did not serve, have their own elected boards that answer to their customers.
Until recently, the Utilities Commission could compel efficient service from the co-ops, with the emergency authority to intervene and take away co-op customers and assign them to another power provider, if necessary. But a change in state law four years ago stripped the Utilities Commission of that legal authority.
Even if the Utilities Commission had oversight over the co-ops, it’s not clear what recourse there would be in the Outer Banks blackout, said Watson. Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative appears to be the victim of an accident, he noted.
“It’s important to remember who’s at fault,” Watson said. “The [cooperative] is working overtime to restore power.”
Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative imported nine diesel generators to provide electricity for island residents. The organization had been working on two fronts: attempting to splice the severed below-ground transmission line – which comprises three cables – and also to build an overhead line, to see which one can be completed first.
With the underground dig site continually flooding, the co-op decided to focus on the overhead line, said Laura Ertle, the co-op’s spokeswoman.
“We have abandoned the underground fix at this point,” she said. “Water continued to seep into the trench making the environment unsuitable for repairs.”
Ertle deflected questions about who will pay for the cost of the repair and other damages. She said the co-op is insured and the question of financial responsibility will be addressed after power is restored.
“Our hope is that our members will not have to bear the cost,” Ertle said.
As much attention as the Outer Banks outage has garnered, the consequences are puny compared to the loss of power to millions of people after major hurricanes and ice storms that have struck North Carolina.
But it’s a fluke like no other.
“I don’t recall a line serving that many people being completely cut,” said Utilities Commissioner Bryan Beatty. “It’s unfortunate that it’s at the height of the tourist season.”