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Frequent Dutchtown Power Outages Prompt Ameren To Replace Aging Lines

Ameren Missouri plans to invest $5 billion to improve the statewide electrical grid.
Ameren Missouri
Ameren Missouri plans to invest $5 billion to improve the statewide electrical grid.

For Caya Aufiero, a power outage is more than an inconvenience.

When one occurs, business at Urban Eats — a restaurant she co-owns in Dutchtown — can come to a standstill.

“You have to close your doors and write your business off for the day,” said Aufiero. “It’s painful, very painful.”

Across St. Louis, such outages are becoming increasingly common as underground wiring installed nearly a century ago deteriorates. Ameren Missouri is spending billions of dollars to upgrade the state’s electrical grid, fixes that will include repairing lines.

In the Dutchtown neighborhood alone, Ameren Missouri has recorded a dozen power outages over the past six months, some lasting several hours at a time. Dutchtown’s issue is an electrical short in an underground cable dating to the 1930s. The utility company is replacing the cable, which runs the length of 12 city blocks.

The frequent outages have kept Aufiero and her staff on their toes.

John Chen and Caya Aufiero, co-owners of Urban Eats Cafe in the Dutchtown neighborhood.
Credit Caya Aufiero
John Chen and Caya Aufiero, co-owners of Urban Eats Cafe in the Dutchtown neighborhood.

When the power goes out, they consolidate all of the perishable food from 13 different pieces of equipment into a single fridge and freezer powered by a generator.

“For a restaurant, there are very strict food-handling guidelines,” she said. “Food can only be out of its correct temperature for a certain amount of time before it’s no longer safe to serve and has to be thrown out.”  

In addition to losing perishable food, Aufiero said power surges have damaged at least six pieces of refrigerated equipment beyond repair in recent months.

“That was thousands of dollars worth of equipment,” she said. “We’re a very small neighborhood business. We don’t have deep pockets.”

To protect against future surges, Aufiero spent nearly $1,000 for an electrician to install surge protectors on the main electrical panel of the building.

Pinpointing the cause

Moisture is the enemy of old electrical wiring.

If water penetrates Ameren’s underground electrical cables, it can trip the protective device at the substation and cause an outage, said Darnell Sanders, director of Ameren Missouri’s underground division.

Once the moisture is gone, the cable will re-energize.

“The moisture is evaporated through the heating of the conductor,” Sanders said. “That’s why it was so hard and so difficult to diagnose.”

Ameren Missouri crews first identified the faulty cable in Dutchtown in mid-February.

Although customers may have experienced some “power-quality” issues over the past six months, Sanders said he isn’t aware of any power surges connected to the faulty cable.

The cable replacement in Dutchtown was 65 percent complete as of March 19, said Sanders. He expects the project to be finished by the end of the month.

The company had originally planned to replace the cable next year as part of its $5.3 billion Smart Energy Plan, but decided to fast-track its replacement last month.

As part of the Smart Energy Plan, Ameren Missouri plans to install more than 400 miles of new underground cable and replace 12,000 electrical poles across the state.

Sanders said the St. Louis area has “aged infrastructure that’s in need of repairs.”

“There was a big infrastructure improvement that took place back in the '60s, and now we’re at the end of another cycle,” he said. “So there’s still quite a bit that needs to be replaced and upgraded.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.