OPINION: Shedding light on how often power outages leave Georgians in the dark

A large tree fell across West Wesley Road and Habersham Road, where it remained closed most of the day Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. Rain bands and damaging winds from Tropical Storm Zeta swept through North Georgia that morning, leaving at least one person dead and nearly 1 million in the dark. Zeta made U.S. landfall the previous day as a Category 2 hurricane, lashing the Louisiana coast with 110 mph winds. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Caption
A large tree fell across West Wesley Road and Habersham Road, where it remained closed most of the day Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. Rain bands and damaging winds from Tropical Storm Zeta swept through North Georgia that morning, leaving at least one person dead and nearly 1 million in the dark. Zeta made U.S. landfall the previous day as a Category 2 hurricane, lashing the Louisiana coast with 110 mph winds. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

On the cusp of 2020, just before the pandemic left him locked down at home, Shawn McBee was out on the town with his wife, celebrating her birthday on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, the event they had chosen to attend wasn’t much fun, so they decided to call it an early night and finish the birthday festivities at home.

They arrived to their neighborhood in southeast Atlanta just before midnight and turned on the television, but before they could count down to the new year and watch the ball drop in Times Square, the power went out.

They had to celebrate his wife’s birthday in the dark.

McBee has lived in the Atlanta area since 2015 — he first lived in Decatur — but when he moved to Lakewood Heights, he noticed something strange.

“The power outages here in Lakewood have been pretty bonkers … and it is not always weather related,” said McBee, 42, a film industry graphic designer who sometimes works from home.

Several weeks ago when a downed tree shut off power to some residents in the area, McBee asked on a neighborhood app why power in their community was so fragile.

ExploreHow to report a power outage to Georgia Power

He found that some of his neighbors were wondering the same thing.

A few other residents of Lakewood Heights and in other communities on the southeast side of Atlanta agreed that the power seemed particularly fickle in their neighborhoods.

But really, the entire state of Georgia seems to have its share of power struggles.

Georgia is among the top 10 states with the most frequent power outages each year, according to a recent report by MRO Electric and Supply, a North Carolina-based supplier of commercial and industrial equipment.

The company collected and analyzed five years of data spanning 2015 through 2019 from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The data includes the average annual frequency and duration of power outages per customer for each state in the country based on outages lasting longer than five minutes (when certain industry standards are used).

A single customer in Georgia will experience an average of about two blackouts per year, slightly higher than the national average per customer but not as bad as almost four blackouts on average per customer each year in Maine and almost three in West Virginia.

The number of blackouts is only part of the story. The other piece of the power tale is the duration of the blackouts, and Georgia ranks fifth in the nation for the longest power outages at an average of almost nine hours per year of electrical downtime per customer.

I am writing this column several hours after I received a midnight visit from the Atlanta Fire Department. It seems someone called and reported downed wires and a power outage at my address. It was not at my address, but as I would later discover from the Georgia Power website, the outage occurred at the same street address but the wrong street direction in a north side neighborhood with the same name (that’s a column for another day).

At least one resident in the Lakewood Heights area thought the frequent power outages they experience might have to do with the community being considered a low priority by Georgia Power.

ExploreGeorgia Power pushing some customers into new rates; groups concerned

In a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Power begs to differ.

“Georgia Power has invested millions of dollars across metro Atlanta through our reliability and grid investment projects,” said spokesman John Kraft. “The company is investing $1.4 billion to enhance service reliability in communities across Georgia, improve the efficiency of its system, and shorten outage and repair time.”

Kraft said the company’s smart grid technology and increased automation have helped them more quickly isolate outages to smaller numbers of customers and reroute power remotely for improved reliability. Some of the planned enhancements include making overhead power lines more durable and resilient, so they are less susceptible to tree limbs and weather-related outages, or moving targeted portions of overhead power delivery lines underground so they are less prone to repeated damage.

In the East Atlanta and Lakewood areas, recent outages have been related to localized storms, trees and vehicle accidents, Kraft said. Almost 50% of the outages from 2008 through 2017 in Georgia were the result of weather or downed trees, and about 20% were the result of faulty equipment or human error, according to the U.S. Department of Energy state profile risk.

Projects such as equipment replacement and underground wiring will impact about half of the circuits in those Atlanta neighborhoods and are already in different stages of construction and design with completion targeted for 2022, said Kraft.

The outages have become so frequent that last year, McBee purchased a battery backup for his computer so he can continue working uninterrupted, even when the power goes out. “I have never had a battery backup on my computer because it hasn’t been necessary,” he said. Now he is sure to save often, especially if it is raining and the device alerts him when his computer is running on the battery backup.

Atlanta’s tree canopy, one of the largest in the nation, may not offer much hope for eliminating the primary reason some communities experience such long and frequent power outages, but maybe, with Georgia Power’s upgrades on the horizon, McBee and other residents across the state will be spending less time in the dark.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com

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