After months of frequent blackouts affecting thousands of residents and businesses, elected officials in both The Woodlands and Shenandoah said they are meeting with local energy provider Entergy to find solutions.
Since July 10, the Shenandoah City Council has met with representatives from Entergy twice to discuss the issues, which include outages lasting up to eight hours at a time and affecting up to 5,000 people at once, according to Entergy.
David McMullen, a resident of the Silverwood Ranch neighborhood, has voiced frustrations about the issue at pubic meetings in Shenandoah since July. McMullen said the frequency of outages has cost him thousands of dollars, including the installation and maintenance of a generator and damages to his property.
“We have had several outages this month,” McMullen said during the July meeting. “The truth of the matter is that it is affecting everyone in Shenandoah.”
Similar sentiments were expressed at The Woodlands Township board of directors Sept. 19 meeting, where resident Tom Chumbley said he is concerned the frequency of outages could affect the township’s ability to bring in new businesses. The Woodlands has experienced nine major outages, with more than 17,000 total customers affected since July, according to Entergy.
“We cannot court a business to come here by saying, ‘You will have electricity most of the time,’” Chumbley said. “You cannot tell a potential house buyer, ‘You will have to camp here some of the time.’”
Allen East, Entergy vice president of distribution, said the company has a list of projects it is working on to address the issues, and progress is being made.
Keeping the lights on
During a presentation to Shenandoah City Council in July, Entergy Engineering Supervisor Troy DeBeaumont said power outages in Montgomery County were up 49% compared to 2018. The causes of outages have been varied and have included vegetation issues, inclement weather, animal-related incidents and damage caused by entities, such as public utilities and road construction, he said.
Part of the company’s regular maintenance for these issues, DeBeaumont said, is clearing vegetation on a five-year cycle and installing animal deterrents. The most recent clearing concluded in late June.
Shenandoah Mayor Ritch Wheeler cited as a problem the lack of underground utilities, which are not exposed to the elements like the current utilities are. During budget hearings in August, Wheeler said he believes the city should have required developers to install underground utilities in certain neighborhoods at the time. Underground utilities may appear to be in the area due to a lack of visible power lines, but power is actually supplied by overhead lines, he said.
City Council budgeted $160,000 for replacing overhead lines and connecting the Silverwood Ranch Estates, Malaga Forest, Lily, Tuscany Woods and Wellman Manor developments to a substation near Six Pines Drive in FY 2019-20, which officials said should reduce the number of outages. The budget item was adopted Sept. 11.
However, Shenandoah Council Member Ted Fletcher expressed frustrations with Entergy during an Aug. 28 meeting, stating the company had yet to pay any claims to area residents with damaged property due to the outages.
“The city is planning at this point to step up and do some things, which, to be honest—I’m a businessman, and city government has no business providing funding for your solutions,” Fletcher said. “I’m really disappointed that this is really late in the game.”
John Brown, a member of The Woodlands Township board of directors, said the township has dealt with 12 outages over the summer, with durations lasting between one to five hours on average.
“Throughout The Woodlands—both Montgomery and Harris counties—I feel we have a reliability problem,” Brown said. “I understand there will be unforeseen issues that arise, but [they] should be infrequent.”
Director Ann Snyder said outages have been affecting areas around the Grogan’s Mill, Grogan’s Point and Panther Creek neighborhoods, and the township is in talks with Entergy about how to best address the outages and improve service to the area.
Entergy representatives were scheduled to present to The Woodlands board of directors Sept. 19, but it was unable to attend the meeting as it was busy addressing outages caused by Tropical Depression Imelda. The presentation has been pushed back to October.
Addressing the issue
In response to the increased number of outages in the area through 2019, East said the company is examining each pole and line in The Woodlands and Shenandoah to identify the most affected areas, install wires, modernize switch cabinets and replace transformers.
“We’ll probably have crews in and around Shenandoah for the remainder of the year,” East said.
East said a major contributing factor to outages is damage caused by outside entities—construction crews, water utilities and cell phone networks—drilling into underground cables and damaging them, causing weaknesses in the lines that lead to eventual failure.
“In The Woodlands over the last five years, we’ve re-cabled about 115,000 feet of cable,” East said. “Some of the other problems we’ve had [were] with the widening on Woodlands Parkway. Two of our feeders were switched out to allow [road crews] to do that work. … When a fault occurs, it limits our ability to switch.”
If a cable is struck during digging but does not need to be immediately replaced, it can be weakened, leaving it more susceptible to failure in the future, East said. If power is knocked out due to an underground line being hit, East said the standard procedure is for a crew to identify the outage and splice the cables.
To reduce the number of these incidents, Entergy and The Woodlands Township have assembled a utility task force to identify companies that hit underground utilities, including gas, water and electricity providers. East said Entergy has not been faultless when installing underground cables as the company has hit other utilities in the past.
East said Entergy is also replacing all of the old cables originally installed when The Woodlands was established in the 1970s. The new cables, he said, are more sophisticated and better insulated, making them harder to damage once they are installed.
“Our goal is to get rid of all the old cable,” East said. “It just takes time. It is not something you can just wave your hand and get done overnight.”
East said Entergy is in talks with Shenandoah to convert at some part of the city’s electrical utilities from overhead to underground. However, the cost of doing so would likely be passed on to the city as the materials and labor needed for the installation are more expensive than the maintenance of overhead utilities.
Underground installation of electrical utilities costs roughly $1 million per mile depending on the type of cable installed, East said.
In the meantime, a Sept. 9 press release from Entergy states the company is installing 50 devices called reclosers—which act like circuit breakers—across its service territory in Texas.
“If a tree limb falls on a line, the recloser will de-energize the line,” DeBeaumont said at an Aug. 28 Shenandoah City Council meeting. “If the tree [limb] was to fall off, the recloser will re-energize the line after a certain amount of time. This new device is smart. ... A lot of lines have three wires on a pole. With the old device, if a tree were to fall on a line it would interrupt all three. Now it will only interrupt that line, effectively reducing the outage by two-thirds.”
The new reclosers are estimated to cost around $50,000 each.
Over the coming months, residents in Shenandoah and The Woodlands can anticipate controlled outages while the new equipment is being installed and replaced, and vegetation is being cleared away from lines.
“We are more concerned about the [minority] of the time our customers are out,” East said. “We do not want to be the ones causing that life disruption.”