Editorial: Utilities ready for new storm?
The arrival of a hybrid storm system that some meteorologists have dubbed “Frankenstorm” has the potential to cause significant damage to the region, including widespread power losses. When the worst passes and the dust settles, we hope and expect the public will not be talking about “Frankenservice” when it comes their utility companies.
Since the October 2011 snowstorm left hundreds of thousands of customers without power for days to more than a week, the state’s electric distribution companies have taken a royal beating for their emergency preparedness and power service restoration efforts. Furthermore, electric lines were not the only thing that needed repairing in the wake of that event. The damage to customer relationships, including municipalities, required serious mending.
Three entities — National Grid, Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and NSTAR — are the subject of investigations by the state Department of Public Utilities, which is examining their performance before and after that devastating storm. Rulings are expected soon. As part of that review, state Attorney General Martha Coakley is seeking a combined $30 million in fines against the companies for inadequate storm responses.
Levying hefty fines is one way to show who’s boss, but in our opinion, it’s more imperative for state regulators to use their long-running probe to guide these for-profit companies towards better safeguards for public safety. The Valley saw a few fatalities related to the prolonged power failures. The area was lucky there were not more deaths.
One good step is a newly launched DPU investigation to ensure utility companies adopt technologies and practices to enhance service reliability and allow customers to better manage their use of electricity to save money.
For their part, utility companies have had a year to repair their infrastructures, heal broken trust and improve communications with customers and municipal leaders during significant storms. They have established municipal liaisons within their companies, reportedly enhanced their tree trimming work to minimize the risk of downed wires and beefed up contractual relationships with outside crews.
While state regulators are poised to identify shortcomings of their responses to storms of the past, utility companies serving Massachusetts have an opportunity with this latest storm system to show, not tell. At the same time, we must all recognize that last year’s tropical storm, tornado and freak snowstorm will not be the last of the dangerous and dangerous weather events.
When they do strike, it is easy, though not always entirely fair, to blame utilities for all that goes wrong. Indeed, without power, life can get miserable quickly, and for some, put lives at risk.
A power company will only do what it can with the plans it has in place and resources it has marshalled to prepare and respond. We believe companies like WMECO and National Grid, which serve most Hampshire County communities, stand better prepared this time around.
We must also not forget to rely on each other, our neighbors and on our willingness to lend a helping hand to those in need when Mother Nature displays her wrath.