Power companies working to prevent outages during winter storms

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

Even with all the advancements in technology, Mother Nature can still wreak havoc on the electric grid -- especially in the winter. For example, during the ice storm in February 2014, nearly one million people in Pennsylvania were in the dark -- some for as long as a week.

After reviewing storm response procedures, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission recommended power companies increase the communication with their customers by making better use of their social media pages and by sending text and e-mail alerts.

"The lack of information causes customers a lot of heartache, and we understand that," says Scott Surgeoner, Met-Ed spokesperson. "We try to give the best information we can at the time."

The commission also suggested additional improvements to infrastructure -- including the use of "Smart Grids" and "Smart Meters," which companies like Met-Ed and PPL have been installing over the past few years.

"Our operators can remotely see where that problem is, and they can reroute power automatically," says Jessica Long, Regional Affairs Director for PPL. "That can take an outage that would have been hours long down to just a few minutes."

The "Smart Grids" and "Smart Meters" can also prevent additional homes from losing power.

"We may have an outage in the York area, but equipment on the poles, in our substations, is designed to prevent that outage from cascading further," says Surgeoner.

With those improvements comes an increase in the safety and reliability of the electrical system -- aspects the PUC also monitors.

"The public has come to expect, rightly so, that they're going to have reliable service," says Public Utility Commissioner Pamela Witmer.

The commission receives multiple reports from electric companies each year detailing the number of outages that occurred and how quickly they were restored. The companies must also report what improvements were made to their systems.

The commission also works with the companies to make sure equipment is protected against security threats.

"In 2005, the Public Utility Commission required that all of our utilities have security plans in place... whether or not they are physical security or cyber security," says Witmer.

Even with those plans in place, Witmer says security threats change all the time.

"Security is an area that is changing so rapidly, that it`s difficult to try to capture in one statute or regulation something that`s going to be the `silver bullet` because there really isn`t such a thing," she says.

Officials with the electric companies tell FOX43 their systems are dependable and built to withstand any situation -- whether it's a cyber attack or just some bad weather.

"We're very confident that, in the area in which we serve, our equipment is as robust as can be," says Surgeoner.

Upgrades to the electrical systems come with a price tag.

Met-Ed has spent more than $140 million in improvements on all aspects of their energy distribution, while PPL is committing $1 billion to continue installing "Smart Grid" devices across its entire service area.