CLEVELAND — Kevin Czarnecki lives near the old Brooklyn neighborhood in Cleveland and is among thousands of customers who have complained about repeated power outages.
“It’s kind of ridiculous how many problems we have,” says Czarnecki, who is among 9,000 others who complained of outages last year, according to complaints filed with Cleveland Public Power that serves roughly 70,000 customers.
We wanted to find out just how many outages happen every year and for how long. But Cleveland Public Power repeatedly declined our requests for interviews.
Instead, we reviewed Cleveland Public Power outages and duration reports submitted to a federal agency tracking reliability of the nation’s electrical utilities that raise serious questions about just how often the lights go out, as well as CPP’s openness and transparency.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency collects data submitted by power companies that includes the average number of power outages and average duration that customers can experience each year.
The data includes only outages lasting longer than five minutes and uses the total number of system interruptions and total duration per year divided by the total number of customers.
But Cleveland Public Power’s reporting is raising questions over the data’s completeness that could impact just how frequently outages occurred and how long they lasted—ultimately making it difficult to know just what customers are getting for their money.
For example, for five consecutive years, CPP reported customers averaged less than one outage a year lasting anywhere from 12 to 41 minutes.
Suddenly, without explanation, both outages and duration increased for both 2018 and 2019 to an average of between 1.3 and 2 outages a year lasting nearly 4 hours—much more in line with utilities nationwide.
In addition, utilities can report outages and duration that include major events like snow and ice storms, high winds and tornadoes as major events separately to allow customers to view outages and duration with and without those major interruptions.
Yet, CPP’s reports include only figures for major disruptions --raising questions over its reporting accuracy and completeness.
Cleveland Public Power repeatedly refused to answer any questions regarding the accuracy of those numbers.
CPP’s reporting of outages and duration also raises questions among respected industry leaders.
B. Don Russell is past president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, also known as the Power and Energy Society, which helps set standards for measuring reliability.
He agreed to review CPP outage and duration reports submitted to the Energy Information Agency.
“Compared to all the other utilities data that I am aware of in the country—it’s just a very, very low number, says Russell, referencing CPP’s reporting of average outages and duration.
“It certainly can be true,” adds Russell, “but it’s unusual.”
By comparison, the Energy Information Agency reports that in 2019, U.S. customers experienced an average of 3.2 hours of interruptions during major events that include snow, ice, windstorms, etc. and 1.5 hours of interruptions without major events.
Other experts caution that reliability numbers have limitations.
“Unfortunately, they don’t tell the whole story,” says Brian Levite, Regulatory Affairs Director for Chicago-based S & C Electric, a 100-year-old company providing safety and reliability equipment for the nation’s electrical distribution grid.
For example, the current reporting system does not include outages lasting less than five minutes, so repeated “momentary outages” are not reflected.
Plus, because they reflect an average—customers in some neighborhoods could experience far more outages that last longer.
“So, they hide some outliers with pretty poor performance,” says Levite, whose company has developed state-of-the-art technology that can dramatically improve reliability and “allows the grid to almost instantly detect a fault or a problem and isolate it.”
Levite helped create a report entitled “Moving Beyond Average Reliability Metrics” that addressed “the disconnect” between averages outages and duration that utilities report and what many customers actually experience in their homes.
He also insists reliability can be improved significantly.
For example, Florida Power & Light has installed S & C’s “smart grid technology” and boosted reliability by 40%, making it one of the most reliable utilities in the nation.
It’s the same technology that is now being installed by First Energy here in Northeast Ohio as well.
“So, a three-hour-long outage may turn into a five-minute-long outage,” says First Energy’s Lauren Siburkis.
Other experts we turned to to help understand CPP’s data were unable to make sense of its reported outages and duration.
Sayanti Mukherjee, Professor of Engineering at the University of Buffalo and respected researcher of power reliability, called the data “incomplete.”
Mukherjee has written extensively on the need for utilities to improve reliability and resiliency especially in light of research demonstrating the impact of climate change.
“There will be times when the inadequacies will lead to more blackouts, more rolling outages to balance the supply and demand," warns Mukherjee.
Cleveland Public Power is owned by the City of Cleveland—a publicly supported entity that spends in excess of $200 million a year—yet refuses to explain to ratepayers and taxpayers what they are getting for their money.
“It doesn’t sound like they’re being transparent at all, “says Elizabeth Hempowicz with the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington DC watchdog group.
“The really important thing to remember here is that when we are talking about entities that are funded by the public, owned by the government, they have an obligation to be as transparent as possible," warned Hempowicz.
As a result, our ongoing News5 Transparency Tracker, which measures how well government agencies respond to questions and supply answers — gives Cleveland Public Power a 1 on a scale of 1 to 5.
CPP responded to a request for customer complaints and provided a daily log of reported outages, but ultimately failed to explain how it used that data when reporting outages and duration to the Federal Energy Information Agency.