POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Outage stirs anger
State lawmakers demand to know why Oahu's power stayed off so long The PUC will begin an inquiry that could lead to a formal investigation
STATE officials are demanding answers from Hawaiian Electric Co. as to why it took so long for power to be restored on Oahu even though there was no major damage to the island from Sunday's earthquake off the Big Island.
"People were greatly affected by this," said state Sen. J. Kalani English, chairman of the Senate's Energy Committee. "Anyone who has thrown out food from their refrigerator should be outraged. Anyone who had to go without a meal (Sunday) night or had to sit in the dark should be outraged because this lasted so long."
By 9 p.m. Sunday, roughly 14 hours after the earthquake and a series of aftershocks, only about half of HECO's 290,000 customers on Oahu had power restored. Service was restored to virtually all of Maui and the Big Island -- the only other islands that experienced outages -- by 5 p.m.
HECO officials have said the system operated as it was supposed to, shutting down after the quake tripped sensors that are in place to prevent further physical damage to the electrical distribution system.
A group of state senators and Gov. Linda Lingle said Public Utilities Commission Chairman Carlito Caliboso has been asked to gather information and determine whether a formal investigation is warranted.
"Part of it is to understand how our grid system works, to understand how our power is generated and to investigate just what happened and why it took so long to come back on," English said.
CALIBOSO SAID the inquiry would involve power companies on all islands, and a determination on whether to pursue a formal investigation would be made after the initial, informal briefing.
HECO spokesman Lynne Unemori said the utility routinely conducts investigations of its systems after power failures and already had offered to provide a briefing for the Public Utilities Commission.
"It is a major event, and we want to make sure anything we can learn from it, we do," she said. "It's something we do as a matter of course and something we share with the commission.
"We certainly are in alignment with the PUC in terms of talking to them about our findings."
Although all of Hawaiian Electric's circuits were restored by 1:55 a.m. yesterday morning, there were still pockets of customers islandwide that were without power. Unemori said the outages were likely the result of other problems -- possibly blown fuses or transformers -- and that crews had to be sent to each area to determine the cause.
ON OAHU the earthquakes caused the shutdown of two HECO generators, one in Kahe and the other in Honolulu.
After that happened, other generators attempted to compensate for the lost power, causing uneven "loads" on other parts of the electricity distribution chain, Unemori said. The uneven loads forced the entire system to shut down as a precaution against further damage to the entire system, such as a blown fuse or transformer failure somewhere along the distribution chain.
While similar shutdowns happened on other islands, those systems were able to come back online quicker because the systems are older than Oahu's and less computer-dependent, officials said.
On Oahu, for example, crews had to make sure that breakers throughout the system were in the correct positions "so that when power started being restored, we didn't get a flood of load coming back on all at once," Unemori said.
"We had to kind of put the brakes on in different areas throughout the islands and go through a very methodical process to get things ready for restoration," she said. "We know that it was very frustrating for customers to have to wait that long, but we continue to ask for people's understanding and recognizing that we did not want to find ourselves in a situation where people would end up being out of power even longer because something happened along the way."
She also said that a determination of which customers get back online first depends on the situation. In Sunday's outage, customers closest to the various power-generating stations were the first to be restored.
"They're tied in with the unique circuits around the plant that we energize as part of the initial stabilization process for the electrical system," Unemori said.
ALTHOUGH THE UTILITY does plan for widespread outages, the restoration process still has to be methodical, she said.
"You can have a plan," she said, "but as you're going through and executing it, our folks have to constantly be managing and looking at the supply and demand and determining what the condition of equipment is on those different parts of the circuit and adjusting accordingly to avoid taking steps backwards in the process.
"So it is slow, but it's deliberate to avoid a malfunction."
Lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, say they want an investigation to determine if there is anything they can do legislatively to try to speed up the process in the future.
"Their explanations are valid," English said. "What we're asking is, How do we make this better? What do we put in place so that the human catastrophe that happened after the earthquake -- the prolonged power outages -- do not happen again?"
English (D, East Maui-Lanai-Molokai) and Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo) agreed that Sunday's power failures served as a wake-up call for everyone to be better prepared in the future.
"WE NEED SOME real answers not only in generating electricity, but also delivering it to the customers," Hemmings said. "This was a cataclysmic failure."
Senators noted that the PUC has the ability to penalize the utility if an investigation warrants it, but added that it is too early to start considering such action.
Sen. Russell Kokubun (D, Hilo-Naalehu) said, "Before we jump to any kind of conclusion about penalties or fines or anything, we have to do a very thorough investigation."