Ohio Power Outage During Heatwave Driven by Inequality, Says Engineer

AEP headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

In the heart of Ohio, there is worker solidarity.

By: Robin H, Red Phoenix Correspondent Ohio

A storm that swept through Ohio in June left a wake of destruction which also damaged the power grid. American Electric Power, an energy provider for the Columbus area, decided to shut off power to “keep outages from spreading and make it harder and longer to restore power”. Hundreds of thousands of residents went without electricity, as AEP affirms that this decision was science based.

Many people spent several days without power, most of whom received no warning. This is especially significant considering the massive heat wave across America that week. The other noteworthy factor regarding the planned outages is that densely populated lower income neighborhoods, like Linden and Hilltop, had their power shut off while more rural and well-off areas maintained power.

The outages could have been profit motivated, as AEP was ordered by state regulators to refund 7 million dollars in 2010 for profits that were “significantly excessive”. 84 million dollars were refunded for 14 other cases in 2017. A Columbus City Council member, Rob Dorans, was told by AEP that residents would not be getting compensation for the blackouts. On June 16th, Dorans wrote on Twitter, “I deleted some tweets from earlier today encouraging folks to file claims with @AEPOhio for losses associated with these blackouts. Unfortunately, @AEPOhio contacted me this afternoon, for the 1st time during their outages, to tell me they would not compensate residents.”

AEP must now be feeling the heat. The company withdrew from Columbus Pride, citing that they wanted pride to be about the community. They are also offering a measly 1 million dollar reimbursement, which amounts to less than 6 dollars per person affected by the outages. CEO Nicholas Akins made 15 million in 2020 according to AFL-CIO, and AEP Ohio earned about 2 billion in profits.

However, an ex-AEP worker and control systems engineer Joshua ‘TI’ Herald explained that the shut downs are not caused by profit — at least, they are not caused by profits gained by withholding electricity from residents. Instead, TI argues three main points:

  • 1. Power is cut in order to prevent fires and an even more widespread system failure. This practice is called “load shedding.” The load shedding was a result of legally enforceable orders to AEP by another company called PJM. Because an electrical fault could either be a simple fix or a complicated multifaceted problem, repair times can vary widely. Hence there really was no malice with how AEP or PJM operated given the conditions. The malice, however, lies in the next two points.
  • 2. The response was not properly executed. AEP should have notified residents, held multiple press conferences, and done all that they could to alert the people of imminent power outages. The problem with load shedding, according to TI, is that AEP did not know ahead of time which lines would be turned off. The turning off of power lines was done remotely based on system data and not necessarily by neighborhood income levels.
  • 3. These outages disproportionately affected poorer neighborhoods due to the privatization of the service. Because it is privatized, the quality of the electrical grid is subject to the difference of income from neighborhood to neighborhood — a phenomenon called the uneven development of capitalism. There is no means of allowing for an even, equal, and fair updating of all systems. Hence, while some could speculate on how much AEP is overcharging here and there, or how hateful towards impoverished people they could be, the real root of the problem is that AEP, or any private energy firm, even exists in the first place. It is precisely because of the private nature of the firm that causes the unevenness of repairs and upgrades to the system.

In the middle of this catastrophe, worker solidarity has sparked change. Groups like Food Not Bombs, Housing Ohio, First Collective, the Sierra Club, Sunrise Columbus, and the community at large have come together to provide aid to those who have lost power. Assisting with such tasks as water distribution, food distribution, and transportation to cooling centers, the mutual aid networks of Columbus have kicked into high gear. Blackout Mutual Aid Resources is a website that provides assistance such as locations of cooling centers, heat stroke resources, outage maps, free fans, and even demanding compensation from AEP.

The following is an unedited statement by Sunrise Columbus:

“American Electric Power Corporation (AEP) displayed their incompetence and lack of regard for human life allowing thousands of homes to go without power last week. As reports from across the city of Columbus on Tuesday and Wednesday revealed that more than 170,000 people were plunged into a blackout, it was not AEP, but neighbors, mutual aid organizations, and community organizations that mobilized to care for our community. Sunrise Columbus communicated across networks to assess and respond to community needs and determine who to hold accountable so this would never happen again. Members developed and updated a resource page (editors note: this is the Blackout Mutual Aid Resources website) to provide information on how to get support during the blackout. We formulated demands with input from partner organizations, and organized a protest in front of the well-lit AEP building on Wednesday evening, even as large swaths of Columbus remained without electricity. As households slowly regained power on Thursday, Sunrise Columbus provided ice, water, popsicles, sunscreen, and other necessities to neighbors in Linden while hearing their stories from the past week. We heard about dangerous intersections without stop lights, children unable to communicate with their parents because their phones died, heating food by running hot water over canned goods, fridges and freezers of spoiled food, and heat making it hard to breathe. It is clear we cannot trust AEP or city leaders to be prepared for the next climate-induced extreme weather event and our organization is already in conversation around how to prepare for the high temperatures expected next week. As a youth-led climate justice organization, we know that extreme-weather events are only going to become more likely. We also believe that we deserve a world where utilities and government take seriously the need to address climate change while implementing mitigation strategies for the effects of extreme weather events that we are already experiencing. We will continue to work to keep our community safe and to demand accountability from AEP and our government.”

Another group has also been hounding state legislatures. B.R.E.A.D. argues that this move affects people with breathing problems like COPD or asthma, is an environmental concern, and hurts the poor and disadvantaged. B.R.E.A.D. represents 44 diverse congregations with over 20,000 members in central Ohio. “This is a justice issue, and B.R.E.A.D. will continue to work with and press officials to act,” said board member Diane Jackson.

State Legislators finally listened when 9 Democratic representatives from the House sent a letter demanding answers:

“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. We appreciate your attention to these important matters and believe a further detailed accounting of and investigation into these events is warranted.”

TI ended his Facebook rant with an eerie warning for the future:

“…this isn’t the end. With climate change causing more record-breaking temperatures and storms, along with lagging infrastructure, there will be more outages like this. Even more, there will eventually be larger scale and longer outages in the future – particularly if generating capacity is taken offline in conjunction with downed transmission lines in a single storm and high temperature event across the state.

Welcome to the future.”

The answer to austerity, and the resulting human cost, is to get organized and get active, to gather folks together for the coming troubles. We need mutual aid and working class solidarity to build a future lead by workers. The future of our planet and our neighborhoods depends on it. 

Categories: U.S. News

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