Power out with no storm? Charlotte residents lift complaints to NC utility commission

At Jennifer Williams’ home in the Wexford neighborhood of Charlotte, she feels like power goes out with the slightest bit of wind or rain.

“It got to the point where I was joking on social media about making bets with my friends, when we saw a cloud in the sky, whether I would lose power or not,” she said.

She’s one of many residents expressing frustrations to Duke Energy about frequent outages, especially during August. A post from NextDoor, a social media platform for neighbors, includes 50 comments and 70 reactions from people who live in the Harris-Houston neighborhood near Interstate 485.

Duke Energy says there’s no specific culprit to the outages in the Harris-Houston/University City area. Company officials say the neighborhood isn’t seeing an unusual level of power interruptions and that outages in the Charlotte area generally are mostly caused by storms and accidental damage to electrical service equipment. Still, Duke acknowledged it’s working to make the power grid stronger, which could alleviate problems in the area.

Williams worries about people working from home and those relying on power for health-related concerns. She reached out to Duke Energy many times to make complaints. She’s gotten no answer on whether Duke will investigate specific problems in her neighborhood, she says. Williams said she lost power a total of nine times in August.

“It seems like they (Duke Energy) couldn’t care less unless it makes a dent in their pockets,” Williams said.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Logan Stewart Kureczka said the company is sensitive to customer concerns. She said outages are tied to outside forces impacting service, such as large storms, cars hitting utility poles and animals interfering.

“When those situations occur, our dedicated line teams follow a specific restoration process to get the lights back on as safely and quickly as they can,” Kureczka said in an email statement.

It’s also a headache for Joseph Lewis. As the president of Houston Hills Homeowners Association near University City, Lewis said he contacted Duke Energy after frequent outages.

“There’s been people in our neighborhood who have already started investing in battery backups and generators,” he said.

He’s lived at his home off Reigate Road for about 11 years and there were always what he considered explainable power outages. But this summer, Lewis said there were about a dozen lasting anywhere from a minute to 15 hours.

“There’s been a few times when it’s been random and it’s sunny out,” he said. “But most of the time it can be raining a tiny bit, not even a heavy storm and the power will go out.”

Kureczka said there were several storm-related outages in the Harris-Houston area in the summer, some of them lasting very long.

By the numbers

Data from three main Duke Energy operation centers shows that there were 567,757 Charlotte customers who had service interrupted from January through August — an increase of 144,538 compared to the same eight-month span in 2022.

The city-wide average outage time from January through August was 2 hours and 16 minutes. Compared to last year, the outages lasted an average 20 minutes less.

There were 8,111 outage events from January through August impacting homes and businesses. During this same period last year, it 7,683.

With big storms, Kureczka said Duke Energy deals with a lot of downed trees, damaged power lines, and broken poles, which take a lot of time to repair. The problem resulted in thousands of extended outages at hundreds of locations in the greater Charlotte area, with a need for each one to be repaired individually.

There has been an increase in frequent storms, according to Duke Energy’s data. It shows a 33% increase in 2023 compared to a 5-year average. Additionally, Duke said there has been a 20% increase from 2022 to 2023 in storm days.

“We continue work to improve the grid and strengthen it against outages and make it more resilient to restore power faster when outages occur — and appreciate our customers’ understanding as we make these critical improvements,” Kureczka added.

Cars hitting utility poles is another problem, Duke Energy says. In 2023, 15% of outages customers had were because of public accidents and distracted driving, such as texting while behind the wheel. This is a 36% increase over the last five years. Duke officials said it’s “an alarming and dangerous trend.”

Jennifer Williams says that the power has gone out “nine times this month” at where she lives.
Jennifer Williams says that the power has gone out “nine times this month” at where she lives.

Working in the dark

Like many people in the post-pandemic era, Lewis works from home. He’s the director for an insurance company. And no power means no internet.

“You can’t really work,” he added. “Maybe you can hot spot off your phone for a little bit, but not knowing how long the power outage is going to be, you don’t want to run off your hot spot for the whole entire time either.”

Anastasia Artemiou, a beautician and owner of Doll Like Beauty, shared similar experiences. There were storms in the area, but she says she lost power even in mild conditions.

“One point when the power went out, it was so serious, I had to do lashes in the dark,” Artemiou said about her home on Mortemer Lane in the Harris-Houston neighborhood.

“I literally had a flashlight that I clicked on my braid so I could finish.”

The inconvenience also caused trouble for her husband Alexander, a systems administrator for GoDaddy, an internet domain company. Artemiou said the longest period without power started on Aug. 7, from 3 p.m. to 10 a.m. the next day.

She wants something to be done. “I know they can see that,” Artemiou said about the frequent outages. “It’s not reliable anymore.”

Not enough power?

Some neighbors question if new developments in the area are taking away power capacity.

“I’m wondering if Duke couldn’t handle all the homes around this area that’s using this power,” Artemiou said.

Kureczka said developers building large apartment complexes or other major projects are required to notify Duke Energy before construction to have their accounts interconnected.

“So, we always accommodate well in advance for that expected extra load on the grid — meaning more than enough power is available,” she said in an email interview.

The plan to upgrade grids across Mecklenburg County includes replacing lines, poles and underground outage-prone lines where data indicate it’s best to make changes. Kureczka also mentioned the importance of supporting the addition of electric vehicles, solar and batteries.

“Grid improvements are not just for hurricanes and storms,” Kureczka said. “We are making investments over a multiyear transformation of the power grid — to make it stronger and more resilient — reducing outages and getting the lights back on faster when they do occur.”

Finding a resolution

Lewis and his homeowners association are encouraging people to file complaints with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. So far, Lewis has not heard anything from Duke Energy since the complaints have been filed. Williams said she contacted a City Council member about the problems.

NCUC did not provide The Charlotte Observer a response or data about the amount of complaints.

“We’re hoping to continue to build awareness and put pressure on them to resolve it permanently,” Lewis said.

Kureczka said Duke Energy is working on “smart, self-healing technology — grid automation” to sense when power goes out and to send power to an area to restore service faster.

Duke Energy said that approach helped avoid nearly 60,000 customer outages in Mecklenburg County last year, saving more than 200,000 hours of total outage time. The smart technology has been implemented for about 25% of the county, and around 26% of North Carolina.

She added that the Charlotte metropolitan area has geographic challenges due to having a lot of large, established trees and backyard line locations that go through wooded areas.

“Many of these lines were put in decades ago — lines now are installed along roads rather than in customer backyards,” Kureczka said.

“During a storm, back lot lines are susceptible to wind, heavy rains and trees — often contributing to the many scattered outages our crews face. These are areas that have been, and will continue to be, focus areas for our grid improvement technology.”