Utilities Fined for Downed Wires, Outages

If you’re worried about whether your house will lose power in the next bad weather event, be it a traditional winter icestorm or a freak disaster like the October, 2011 snow that felled trees with leaves still on them, the state Department of Public Utilities wants you to know that it’s working with the utilities to improve their responses to events that cause outages. And not just working with them; cracking down on what the state judges to be unsatisfactory handling of those events.

It won’t be enough to pay for a fridge full of spoiled groceries from your last outage, but you’re likely to find yourself getting a small return from your electric company, which can decide to send a check or post a credit for future bills. For the first time ever, the state is fining the utilities for alleged flawed storm responses; the money, it says, must go back to ratepayers.

The DPU, whose parent agency, the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs, is headed by former Westfield mayor Rick Sullivan, investigated the utilities’ responses to Tropical Storm Irene and the snowstorm of October, 2011, holding 16 public hearings and 13 evidentiary hearings. One result of the investigation is a DPU order that $24.8 million in penalties be returned to National Grid, NSTAR and WMECo ratepayers.

National Grid, which serves Wilbraham, East Longmeadow, Northampton, Williamsburg, Goshen, Athol, Palmer and some 40 other towns in the central and western parts of the state, drew the highest penalty, $18.7 million, because, says the DPU, during both storms it failed to repair downed wires for “several days,” failed to make adequate provisions for special facilities like nursing homes, and did not have enough manpower ready to deal with outages. National Grid had been warned about these deficiencies after a blizzard in 2010, according to the DPU.

NSTAR, which operates in the eastern part of the state, for the most part managed “reasonably,” the DPU reported, but is being assessed a $4 million penalty for failing to deal in a timely manner with downed wires and not communicating well with customers.

WMECo, which serves more than 50 towns in Western Massachusetts, including Amherst, Greenfield and Springfield, was only investigated for its response to the October snowstorm, because the hurricane had little impact on its service area. The October snow, however, affected almost two-thirds of its customer base. WMECo got good marks on the whole for its preparations and for coping with the unexpected intensity of the storm, but the DPU ordered it to pay a $2 million penalty and improve its communications with customers who use electric medical devices.

Like the other companies, WMECo was reprimanded by the state for inadequate responses to local officials’ calls about downed power lines. In a more militant statement than one often hears from the DPU, agency chairman Ann Berwick insisted, “…we will not tolerate inadequate responses to local public safety officials.”

The DPU noted, however, that WMECo has “noticeably improved” its response to emergencies since the ice storm of 2008.

All three utilities will have their emergency response plans reviewed by the state.•


Author: Stephanie Kraft

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