COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – State regulators called AEP Ohio officials to the table Wednesday to review the company’s decision to cut power for thousands of central Ohio homes during a June heat wave.

Officials from AEP Ohio, the main energy supply company in central Ohio, appeared before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to explain the timeline of events that left more than 240,000 central Ohioans – many of whom live in low-income neighborhoods – without power in record levels of heat.

“We are here today to explain what happened the week of June 13 and answer whatever questions you have,” AEP Ohio President Marc Reitter told PUCO. “AEP continues to evaluate the events for lessons learned to improve our resiliency in the future.”

The meeting came two days after Ohio consumer advocacy groups demanded PUCO hire an independent auditor and hold public hearings to determine if AEP was negligent “and thereby owes consumers compensation for perishable food and other damages.”

When asked by commissioners if AEP Ohio could have done anything differently to mitigate the harm of the power outages, Senior Vice President of Energy Delivery Toby Thomas said. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“We saw nothing heading into this that would indicate we would have problems with the systems,” he said. “We really believe it was a combination of the storm damage to the system coupled with the heat.”

Behind the decision to cut power lines

Columbus neighborhoods impacted by AEP Ohio’s power outages in mid-June. (Courtesy Photo/AEP Ohio)

During the week of June 12, AEP Ohio said it was forced to cut power to customers in Columbus and the immediate surrounding areas to prevent overloading its electric grid, which suffered severe damage from storms and the heat wave.

AEP Ohio, however, said the decision to cut power came from its superior, PJM Interconnection, a regulator that oversees the movement of electricity from a grid that covers 65 million people across 13 states and Washington, D.C.

“The day after [Monday’s] storms, multiple additional transmission lines in the AEP service area tripped out of service. This caused surrounding lines to overload beyond safe levels,” a PJM spokesperson said in a June email to NBC4. “To prevent damage to equipment and the risk of cascading outages across a broader area, PJM directed AEP to lower flows across the overloaded lines by reducing electricity load.”

More than 2,000 AEP Ohio personnel were deployed to assist in the cleanup and restoration of the numerous power lines damaged by the storms — including 458 broken poles, 223 broken crossarms, and damage to 58 of the company’s transmission system structures, Reitter said.

Michael Bryson, vice president of operations at PJM, told PUCO that PJM rarely resorts to shedding the electrical loads on power lines. The last time this happened in Ohio, he said, was in September 2013.

AEP Ohio ultimately backed PJM’s decision. Communities hit by power outages were those whose local substations were served by an overloading transmission line, and AEP Ohio said there was no way to “share the pain” of the outages among all communities in Columbus.

“I want to personally assure you that no specific neighborhoods were targeted,” Reitter said. “Simply put, the emergency load reductions were driven by physics.”

Why didn’t AEP Ohio notify customers of the outages sooner?

In a letter addressed to Reitter, several Democratic state lawmakers in Ohio questioned AEP Ohio’s ability to communicate real-time events, like mid-June’s severe power outages, to its consumers.

“We find it troubling that AEP has no issue with customer notifications when bills are due, but when customers are faced with historic heat, limited resources, and great needs, there seems to be limited or no communication about planned outages that impact the health, safety, and welfare of customers,” lawmakers wrote.

But Thomas said there was no way for the company to alert consumers as it was forced to cut power lines in real-time to avoid “catastrophic” damage to its electric grid.

Since there are no energy generating plants in the immediate Columbus vicinity, Thomas said AEP Ohio’s only option was to reduce the electric loads from its systems.

“It was within minutes that we needed to take action to prevent further damage to the system,” Thomas said.

The fact that only 14% of AEP Ohio customers are signed up for mobile alerts further stymied the company’s ability to alert central Ohioans of the outages, Reitter said.

“When I only have 14% of our customers signed up for mobile alerts, we got to think about how we can change, so that’s an area we’re really focused on,” Reitter said.

AEP Ohio offered $1 million fund – but won’t reimburse customers

“Hot and nasty, miserable, humid, spoiled food” is how one Ohio resident described life without power, according to a complaint filed by the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, Ohio Poverty Law Center, and Pro Seniors, Inc. – the three agencies who demanded an investigation into AEP’s outages.

While AEP provided a $1 million fund to help residents who sustained losses during the power outages, the company maintained its position: customers experiencing outages from storms are not eligible for reimbursements under the company’s terms and conditions of service.

“An act of God — storms qualify as that — and as far as reimbursements, we’re not liable,” Reitter said.

AEP Ohio partnered with Columbus Urban League, IMPACT Community Action, Lifecare Alliance and the Mid-Ohio Food Collective to distribute its reimbursement fund “because they know how to reach people,” Reitter said.

An additional $2.7 million Neighbor to Neighbor fund operated by AEP Ohio allows qualifying low-income residents affected by the outages to apply for up to $500 in grants, Reitter said. The fund is open until the end of July.

What happens next?

PUCO said its commissioners will prepare a report outlining its findings from Wednesday’s hearing and encouraged customers impacted by the outages to share their experiences.

“We are still getting customer comments, complains and we encourage the public to continue to reach out to our call center, provide those comments and complaints so we can utilize them as part of our review,” said PUCO Chairperson Jenifer French.

Central Ohioans impacted by June’s power outages can contact PUCO at 1-800-686-7826 or by clicking here.

Wednesday’s meeting can be watched here. The commission will hold its next public meeting, which will be livestreamed on PUCO’s YouTube channel, on Wednesday, July 27.