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State investigation of utility companies nears end

  • Downed limbs on Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton during the October storm.<br/>Mike Bradley
  • MIKE BRADLEY<br/>The sun rises over Northampton the morning after an early snowstorm that left millions without power throughout the Northeast.
  • MIKE BRADLEY<br/>A house on Lincoln Ave. in Northampton was damaged by a fallen tree on Sunday.

— State regulators are expected to rule soon on year-long investigations into the performance of utility companies during the October 2011 snowstorm that crippled the region.

Decisions by the state Department of Public Utilities on how Western Massachusetts Electric Co., National Grid and NSTAR planned for and responded to the storm and the massive, prolonged power outages that ensued will come simultaneously, according to the agency. They could also carry some hefty fines.

“The next step is issuing a decision,” Krista Selmi, a DPU spokeswoman, said this week. “We are very close.”

The investigation is wrapping up just as the region — and its utility companies — are bracing for another potentially precedent-setting, possibly damage-causing storm as three weather fronts barrel towards each other in what some forecasters have said could be a perfect storm.

Earlier this year, state Attorney General Martha Coakley recommended $4 million in penalties against WMECO, which serves 210,000 customers in 59 western Massachusetts communities, as well as $10 million against NSTAR and $16 million in fines against National Grid for inadequate storm responses during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and the October snowstorm two months later.

In the three cases, Coakley cited communication breakdowns with customers and municipalities throughout the October 2011 storm, a failure to provide timely damage assessments, a failure to make direct contact with customers with special medical needs, and a failure to properly staff the storm and respond to public safety calls about downed wires, among other complaints.

“The October 2011 snowstorm left thousands of western Massachusetts customers without power for as many as 12 days,” Coakley said in July when she filed a brief in the DPU case involving WMECO. “During outages, customers — especially those with medical needs — and local officials need timely and accurate communications about power restoration efforts.”

Coakley described WMECO’s communications as “woefully inadequate” and National Grid’s response to the storm as “unacceptable.”

Since the storm the companies said they have implemented “lessons learned,” including developing new and enhanced information sharing procedures with municipalities, more sophisticated Web-based technologies to provide real-time information on power outages and restoration, enhanced vegetation trimming and expanded outside contractor relationships to bolster emergency responses, among other improvements.

The company’s response has been “swift and significant,” WMECO officials said this week.

“We’ve been unwavering in expressing our disagreement with the Attorney General’s claims,” Priscilla Ress, a WMECO spokeswoman, said in an email to the Gazette. “Last year’s storm caused significant damage throughout the region as well as to our electric grid, with more than 140,000 WMECO customers losing power. Right now, our primary focus in on preparing for another storm with the potential for causing major damage and outages in our region.”

In its filings with the DPU, WMECO presented a vigorous defense of its performance amid the challenges it faced. The company described the event, which knocked out power to 65 percent of its customer base, as the “perfect storm” in that, when it struck, it was “beyond anyone’s comprehension and past experience.”

The company argued that the October snowstorm was one that forecasters struggled with and that no one could reasonably have anticipated the magnitude of snow and resulting damage.

“Never before in history had WMECO experienced anything approaching such a large number of, such a large percentage of, customers that lost power due to storm,” attorneys for WMECO wrote in a brief filed with DPU in June. “Nothing like this damage had ever been previously experienced.”

In a related development, the DPU this month announced plans to launch an investigation to ensure that electric distribution companies are adopting grid modernization technology and practices, which will enhance electric service reliability and allow consumers to better manage their electricity use to save money on electric bills.

Service improvements

The storm planning and response changes the utility companies said they have already made will be welcome to the many local officials and emergency responders who bore the brunt of customer dissatisfaction during last year’s storm.

“There was definitely a lack of communication between the power companies and the municipalities, and a lot of misinformation as well,” recalled Easthampton Police Chief Bruce McMahon as he prepared for another potentially destructive storm this weekend.

At times during the storm, McMahon said, the city was told there were more than a dozen utility crews at work when there were none to be found, and that approximately 50 percent of the city’s power failures had been restored when only 15 to 20 percent had come back online. He said police were unable to explain to elderly residents when they would have power again and were forced to tell some who were preparing to leave shelters and return home that their power had not been restored.

“It basically all comes down to communication,” he said.

In the wake of the storm, WMECO executives met with Easthampton city officials to explain the problems the company faced and work toward future solutions, as it did in other cities and towns. McMahon said the meeting was productive.

“Hopefully we don’t have a storm like this again,” McMahon said. “If we do, I anticipate things will be better.”

Three months ago, National Grid issued a statement regarding the DPU probe and the improvements it has made since the October 2011 storm. The company said it understood and acknowledged that its customers were frustrated and angry by the multi-day outages.

“We did everything we possibly could to restore power as quickly and safely as possible,” Marcy Reed, president of National Grid, said at the time. “That being said, while we believe we complied with all the standards required by the DPU for storm response, we know we did not meet our customers’ expectations and we have worked hard to do better.”

The Department of Public Utilities files are filled with testimony from residents who experienced hardships and other problems during the storm, from an elderly woman in Deerfield worried about how she would pay for the loss of perishable food to UMass officials concerned about even momentary disruptions in service that could destroy expensive equipment and interrupt or destroy high-profile, cutting-edge research projects.

U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, said he was without power for eight days at his home in that city and fielded hundreds of calls from angry constituents seeking an explanation as to why they were without power for so long.

In testimony last December, Neal said the public could take some small relief as the storm happened so early in the season. Daytime temperatures rose into the 50s in the days following.

“Imagine if this happened in late December, January or February,” Neal said. “We would be looking at a much more grim situation with many fatalities as a result. There are many questions for the utilities that need to be answered. Why did it take so long to bring power back up in western Massachusetts?”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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