A pole fire cut off Cuyahoga Falls' main connection to FirstEnergy

2022-05-28 14:09:24 By : Mr. Thomas Peng

A single utility pole caught fire just outside Cuyahoga Falls city limits Tuesday afternoon.

It just so happened to be the city's main source of power, and more than 21,000 customers went without electricity for 15 hours. 

Mayor Don Walters said he can't remember a time when the power has been out for longer, but it's definitely the longest outage in recent years.

He said several things happened at once to make this outage last longer, and the city has already been exploring ways to add more backup in the future.

The utility pole that caught fire was on Portage Trail Extension West, near the Valley Substation. While there are several substations in the city, only the Valley Substation and the Theiss Substation are connected to FirstEnergy to bring power to the city.

Cuyahoga Falls has a municipal electric system, and the city's electric department handles all the power lines in the city and the connections to homes. But the power lines into the city are managed by FirstEnergy.

Two transmission lines bring electricity to the city. The main line goes to the Valley Substation, and a secondary line goes to Theiss Substation.

Lauren Siburkis, a FirstEnergy spokesperson, said the two-circuit feed is a common design for municipal electric systems. 

Walters uses a house as an analogy. When you own a home, you generally only have one power line to use. Adding two more for backup would mean a tree branch wouldn't knock out your power, but it also adds costs.

He said the city has the same issue on a large scale. The two transmission lines are heavily protected, with no trees or roads nearby. And normally when they break, it's an easy fix.

"What was different last night was that it wasn't an easy fix," Walters said.

The pole was in bad shape and needed replaced, he said. They were able to do a temporary fix, but it took longer than expected. 

It was about 1:30 a.m. when the pole was fixed. Walters went to bed and slept for about an hour before realizing the power still wasn't coming on.

He said when FirstEnergy tried to send power through the fixed transmission line, the company's breaker wouldn't close.

FirstEnergy tried to use a generator to power its equipment and force the breaker to close. Eventually, workers realized it was a relay circuit protection, a kind of safety device, that needed to be reset. 

Siburkis said it was an isolated equipment issue and not something that happens often.

It was about 6 a.m. when FirstEnergy started delivering power to the city, Walters said. At that point it slowly started to restore power to residents.

About 21,700 customers out of about 25,000 in the city lost power at around 3:40 p.m. Tuesday. All customers had power again by about 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Walters said Cuyahoga Falls has spent about two years working to add a third transmission line into the city.

He said the plan is to build a new main substation at the electric department's current location on Bailey Road. The city would have to move the electric department before doing so.

Walters doesn't have a timetable for a third line being built.

Currently, the city is part of American Municipal Power (AMP), a nonprofit co-op that's made up of cities across the country. Cuyahoga Falls buys its electricity through AMP, and Walters said it could also hire the nonprofit to build the transmission line.

He said AMP could build the line that goes into the proposed substation, giving the city two different agencies that deliver it power and a third power connection. 

"We're taking steps to move forward on that, but it’s a lengthy process," Walters said. 

Walters said the hardest part of an outage is answering the question of when it will be over. When it's a FirstEnergy repair, city repair workers can't help, so city officials don't have all the information needed to make a prediction, the mayor said.

Having its own municipal system allows Cuyahoga Falls residents to charge cheaper utility rates, he said. 

"We only charge enough to maintain what we have," Walters said. "We don’t make a profit." 

Reach reporter Sean McDonnell at 330-996-3186 or smcdonnell@thebeaconjournal.com.