800K outages in 18 months: MLGW years behind on upkeep and upgrades

By , Special to The Daily Memphian Updated: July 22, 2023 5:03 PM CT | Published: July 22, 2023 3:42 PM CT

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Beginning with the disastrous storm on June 25 and followed by several more severe storms so far this month, Mid-South residents have been hit hard with prolonged and recurring power outages.

On Friday, July 21, Memphis Light, Gas and Water and the City of Bartlett hosted a Power Hour community engagement at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center, inviting residents to share their concerns about the recent outages.

MLGW held a similar Power Hour session in Frayser Thursday.

MLGW makes progress on power restoration

“In the last 18 months, we have had 800,000 customer outages caused by major storms,” MLGW president and CEO Doug McGowen said. “That’s the same number of outages I had in the 10-year period between 2012 and 2022, so it’s pretty severe weather we’re seeing.”

McGowen said the percentage of outages caused by damage from trees and vegetation is up by 20% in 2023, now causing 60% of the total outages. Bartlett has been hit particularly hard with downed trees and power lines in the past month, with some blaming the lack of tree trimming for some of the problems.

“In some cases, we’re seven, eight, nine years behind. We have got to get back on schedule, and we will. The City Council has already approved this. My board has already approved this,” McGowen said.

MLGW has not met its vegetation management goals since 1997. Last year, that goal was to complete 1,400 miles of tree trimming, but the company completed only 190.

Other factors in the rise of outages in the last 10 years is a lack of investment in recurring maintenance and modernization of the infrastructure.

On Tuesday, July 18, 141,000 MLGW customers lost power from a storm that came on the heels of 122,000 MLGW customers losing power in a storm 10 days earlier.

As of Thursday night, roughly 10,000 of MLGW’s 450,000 customers were still without power, and then Friday’s thunderstorms and high winds knocked power back out for about 60,000 homes and businesses.

McGowen said the Town of Collierville confirmed 74-mph winds yesterday.

“Anything above 58 mph is threatening to life and property, according to the National Weather Service,” he said. “So we build most utility system to withstand 70-mph winds, but successive storms can build up damage, can weaken systems. Specifically, they can weaken trees.”

McGowen mentioned the company’s $1.3 billion plan that began in 2020 to upgrade aging infrastructure. It includes replacing old utility poles, transformers and switches as well as upgrading substations.

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“We began to execute that plan just as COVID hit, the supply chain dried up, workforce dried up, and we couldn’t get contractors to do the work,” he said. “But that plan is still effective. It’s based on reliability that we know will work. We’re picking that back up.”

A smart grid is being installed now that will make the system “self-healing” in the future, cutting time without power in some situations down from many hours to mere minutes.

Jacqueline Payne was among the Bartlett residents who came to Friday’s event, and she talked about the impact the recurring power outages are having on her family.

“I have food that’s being ruined. I have six dogs, I have my husband who has health issues and I have my little sister, who I’m taking care of, who has health issues,” she said. “Tonight (we’re) going to have to go to a hotel room ... and it’s upsetting.”

She said the last time she saw any crews doing tree trimming on her street was in 2014.

We began to execute that plan just as COVID hit, the supply chain dried up, workforce dried up, and we couldn’t get contractors to do the work. But that plan is still effective. It’s based on reliability that we know will work. We’re picking that back up.

Doug McGowen
MLGW president and CEO

Bartlett Mayor David Parsons gave an update on the city’s ongoing clean-up efforts since the June 25 storm.

“As of quitting time today, we have picked up 111,000 cubic yards of debris,” he said, adding that the amount is the largest ever for the suburb, substantially higher than the 68,000 cubic yards picked up from the ice storm of 2021.

He said he is confident in the steps MLGW is taking to make long-term fixes to the current issues.

“I am more optimistic about their ability to keep their word and what they’re able to do since this man (McGowen) has been on the job,” he said.


power outages MLGW Bartlett Memphis Light Gas and Water Division Doug McGowen

Michael Waddell

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian with more than 20 years of professional writing and editorial experience, working most recently with The Daily News and High Ground News.


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