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Why Is My Power Out But My Neighbor's Isn't?

Duke Energy trucks are lined up at the company building on West Second Street.

(Joey Mendolia/WTIU)

Every time a storm rolls in, Steve Higgs gathers an oil lamp, candles and matches, because, more often than not, his power goes out.

Two weeks ago, when torrential rains flooded the downtown, it was the same story.

READ MORE: Here's What To Do If You Were Affected By Last Week's Flooding

Higgs is an adjunct lecturer at the IU Media School and lives in the Bryan Park neighborhood. He was one of the more than 12,000 people in town who lost power in that storm.

“Every time I look across the street,” he said. “And it’s the God’s honest truth, my neighbors have never lost their power in any of these storms.”

And that led him to ask City Limits, “Why it is that some of us lose power and others don’t.”

And he’s not alone. It’s an issue home owners face all around town.

“People have talked about this over by the hospital. A friend of mine in Hyde Park has told me about it. I’ve heard from people in different parts of town,” he said. “It just seems like some of us are not getting the same service that other areas are.”

Bruce Calloway is the government and community relations for Duke Energy in South Central Indiana. He said the issue is not one of one customer getting better service than another, but that one is on a line experiencing issues and one is not.

He said you need to view the power grid the same as you do your house, where there are breakers for different rooms. A tripped breaker will knock out power is your kitchen, but on the other side of the wall, the power remains on in your dining room.

“We’ll have fuses on some of those lines that feed down one side of the street or in the backyard, and then your neighbor across the street will have a line behind their house, and it’s on a different fuse,” Calloway explained. “So, if something happens to that particular line feeding you neighbor and their lights go out, your’s might stay on, or vice versa.”

Calloway was a power line worker for 17 years with Duke before moving into administration. He said another issue can be wear and tear.

“Everything’s a different age,” he said. “The poles are a different age, the conductors are different, the transformers. Obviously, if a transformer fails, we’re going to go out and change that. So now your transformer is brand new and your neighbor’s is maybe 15 years old.”

As far as getting the power back on after a storm, Calloway said there’s a hierarchy to how the company proceeds – from transmission lines to substations to distribution lines to powers poles down to the individual homes.

“We’re also looking at essential facilities, so hospitals, nursing homes, emergency management folks,” he said. “And then we’re going to start focusing on how do we get the most customers back on the quickest after we do that.

“So, if we can pick up 1,500 customers, we’re going to do that prior to getting into all the what we call onesies, which are toward the end of the line.”

As one of those onesies, Higgs understands his block is low on the priority list after a storm.

“I looked at the (outage) map, and there was a circle around Bloomington, and it said 12K,” Higgs said. “I know my little block of 125 customers is going to be low on the priority list. And, sure enough, it was a day and a half before we finally got it back.”

Higgs said he understands the outages, but what bothers him is the frequency in which it happens. He said his power almost always goes out during a storm, and it’s something that should be addressed pre-emptively by the company.

“Why not fix the problems? You know there’s a problem on this side of the street, not a problem on that side of the street. What about the public?” he said. “I pay the same rates as the people across the street. I presume I pay the same rates as businesses on Walnut Street, so why do I get inadequate service compared to them?”

Mike Mullett is a retired attorney from Columbus, Ind. He represented Citizens Action Coalition in litigation against Public Service Indiana in the 1980s, and won a large settlement for energy customers when construction on a nuclear power plant in Marble Hill, Ind., was abandoned in 1984.

He said Duke’s size – it’s headquartered in North Carolina and serves six states, including Indiana – makes it prohibitive for individuals to address grievances they have about, say, a specific transformer or perceived inequality in service.

Mullett said before you reach out to Duke’s customer service, it’s best to gather as much specific information as you can before making a call.

And if you can’t get the results you’re seeking from Duke, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission is tasked with fielding complaints against regulated utilities such as Duke. Mullett says you might have a better chance brining complaints as a group rather than as an individual.

“As critical as electricity is, people are just going to have to, as they did in the 1930s when we needed electricity, just rise up and tell these mega-institutions you have to adapt,” he said. “You have to change because you exist to serve us. We don’t exist to serve you.”

Calloway would say Duke’s role is to serve the community, which includes more than 60,000 customers in the Bloomington and surrounding areas. He points to the company’s text and email system that notifies customers of outages, the reason behind them and when they can expect power back.

And he says the company recently completed instillation of smart meters for all of its customers that allows Duke to check power going into every residence and react more quickly to outages.

“We’ve done a lot of storms, and each one’s different, but our priority without a doubt is safety – the safety of the public and the safety of our employees – and we’ve never failed to get the electricity back after any storm,” he said.

Because no one wants to be left in the dark.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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