Blackouts In Berlin Continue To Frustrate

BERLIN — With frequent power outages causing headaches among Berlin citizens, town officials are urging patience though some are calling for more scrutiny over how Berlin handles its utility.

“It [a power outage] is a major inconvenience,” admitted Mayor Gee Williams.

Last Saturday marked the most recent in a string of blackouts that have been leaving Berlin in the dark since earlier this summer. There have already been a couple weather driven incidents in September, though severe storms in August, and July especially, brought the bulk of the outages.

“It’s been an unusual summer because of the storms,” said Williams.

Several residents, who wish to remain anonymous, lodged complaints with this paper criticizing the length and frequency of outages over the last three months. The blackout Saturday in particular served as a final straw for some, since that day’s storm wasn’t nearly as fierce as Hurricane Irene or some of the lightning-filled squalls that pounded the area in July, leading many to question whether they should expect the lights to now go off every time it rains.

According to Electric Utility Director Tim Lawrence, last Saturday’s outage was a unique accident, likely caused by moisture seeping into a piece of equipment on North Main St. However, he theorized that the equipment may have already been damaged by lightning in an earlier storm, which would have left it vulnerable to rain seeping in.

Additionally, Lawrence pointed out that the blackouts were exacerbated by the fact that Berlin is currently at one-shot capability. Extensive damage from lightning in July forced the replacement of breakers in the town’s substation. Without those breakers, all three circuits that make up Berlin’s power grid are tied together. When one goes down, they all do. It’s an issue that Lawrence brought to the town council months ago.

“This problem was discovered earlier this summer,” confirmed Williams.

Immediately following Lawrence’s announcement that lightning damage meant new breakers would be needed, the council allocated $69,600 towards having the parts replaced, though the actual cost was eventually whittled down to $56,000.

“The equipment is currently being manufactured,” said Williams, who explained that the parts needed to be custom-built for Berlin, a several month venture. “Help is on the way.”

Lawrence confirmed that the new breakers are expected mid-November, and will put the town at “three-shot capability,” allowing each of Berlin’s circuits to operate independently, meaning problems in one circuit won’t affect the other two.

When the new breakers are in place, Williams was confident that outages around town will be severely reduced. In the meantime, he promised that the town will continue to provide the best service it can in the face of severe weather. For residents frustrated by the blackouts, Williams asked that they consider how easily Berlin has gotten off compared to some other parts of the state.

“Comparatively speaking, our outages are very short,” he said.

Williams pointed out that other towns in Maryland lost power for multiple days during Irene, while Berlin was only off-line for a few hours.

“Our reliability is as competitive as anybody’s,” he said.

Councilwoman Lisa Hall expressed doubts with the direction Berlin is going with its utilities in general, not just with the recent string of outages.

“How much is enough?” she asked, inquiring about the exact amount of money Berlin has spent on utility issues and projects over the last few years.

Hall used the replacement breakers needed for the power plant as an example.

“That plant can $70,000 us to death,” she said, citing rising repair costs as an area of worry.

Hall did admit that Berlin’s involvement in the electric field is a complicated affair with a lot of variables.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the town to own a utility like that,” she said.

But complications aside, Hall wants to open up all aspects of how the town handles utilities to the public eye.

“I think we need to really look at what has been spent in the last three years,” she said.

Lawrence also felt that the public should be more involved, though his concern dealt more with the practical side of keeping the lights on. Public annoyance with outages is not something unfamiliar or unexpected for Lawrence. He understands how easy it is for residents to get angry while in the dark, both figuratively and literally.

In an effort to sharpen public awareness of what causes power outages and how the town attempts to prevent and respond to them, Lawrence suggested an open class for all interested members of the community, where any questions they have can be fielded by knowledgeable sources.

One of the biggest complaints now, admitted Lawrence, is the duration of blackouts. Though times vary, some parts of Berlin were without power for almost five hours last Saturday. According to Lawrence, the long down time was the result of difficultly in locating the source of the problem.

“Basically, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he said. “You have to physically check every pole.”

Town officials did express interest in the classes, added Lawrence, but nothing has been decided for sure yet. If the frequency of outages remains constant or even increases in the coming months, Lawrence mentioned the option of placing the town’s power grid underground, a move that comes with a heavy initial cost, but would make the energy network all but immune to severe weather.

“It’s one thing we’re looking at in the 10-year plan,” he said, adding that Berlin could begin going underground, “one street at a time,” to avoid having to bear the entire expense at once.

Whatever immediate steps are taken to protect against future outages, Hall still believes that the council needs to re-examine some of its ideas and practices in regards to utilities and she encourages the public not to be shy with any questions they might have about town operations.

Williams reiterated his opinion that, though there have been hiccups in Berlin, service has been strong compared to other places, even if it doesn’t always appear that way to residents experiencing a black out.

“We don’t live in a world one-mile wide,” he said.