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Power outages this year lead to calls for electricity reliability review in Wisconsin

Chuck Quirmbach
Power lines and poles in a Milwaukee area neighborhood that went without electricity for about eight hours Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

We Energies said work continues to restore electricity to people who lost power during Wednesday and Thursdays wind storm. But the company said some customers may be without electricity until Saturday.

Darlene Maternowski
Windstorm in southeastern Wisconsin caused trees to collapse and left many without power.

The second major outage this year has some groups calling for more investments in preventing homes and businesses from suddenly going dark.

We Energies parent company is the WEC Energy Group. Group President Kevin Fletcher says his home in Mequon was still without power as of Thursday afternoon. So he says he gets it — people are concerned.

"We frustrating it is to be without power. So our men and women that are working on the line crew, that are working throughout the company, are doing their very best job, all hands on deck, to get every single customer restored just as quickly as we can," Fletcher said at a media briefing.

Chuck Quirmbach
WEC Energy Group President Kevin Fletcher speaks to the news media Thursday afternoon, outside We Energies headquarters in downtown Milwaukee.

If going without power for days seems familiar, it's because it just happened in August after another significant storm.

State utility regulators say they try to make sure energy companies do more than react to storms and prevent outages from happening.

Fletcher said We Energies and his group's other companies try to strengthen or harden their circuits, power lines, and power poles and have won awards for reliability.

He said the utility always does cost-benefit analyses.

"When you look at what investments we make in the system, be it overhead to underground, all of that is put into the mix to make those decisions: what's best for the customers as far as safe, reliable power," Fletcher said. "We make those decisions based on those criteria with the business case."

Moving power lines from overhead to underground is one way to beat a windstorm, but it's often more expensive.

Tom Content of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin said he'd also like to see power companies take a closer look at repeat problem areas, "neighborhoods or towns that seem to be in the line of fire, if you will, for some of the weather events we've been having. Each storm is different, so I don't know how much you can deduce from that, but that's something to explore."

Chuck Quirmbach
A crew hired by WE Energies removed a downed tree in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood in August, 2021

Martin Day is an energy administrator at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin. He said reliability metrics, such as the frequency of outages and their duration, show power company reliability is generally getting better in Wisconsin.

Day said some utilities are experimenting with responding to the concern that storms will become more frequent and intense, perhaps due to climate change. For example, Day said more firms are installing automatic reclosers, a high-voltage electric switch that can sense when trouble occurs and shut off the power.

"The utility can re-close, you know, they can clear and re-close the system remotely, from their control center, rather than have to roll a truck," Day said.

Sending a repair crew can be expensive and take more time.

Content said ratepayers typically pay for electrical system improvements. So, he said those investors deserve another look at whether Wisconsin utilities are doing enough.

"The challenges this year that we're seeing. The big storm in August followed by this one. The reliability challenge is in front of us again," Content said.

Thousands still wait for their lights to go back on, and in many cases, their heat to go back on.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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