, Newburyport, MA

November 5, 2012

Our view: Utilities' performance improves after Sandy

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Utilities seem to have gotten the message from angry customers and state regulators. Their performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was much improved over that in storms over the past few years.

Sandy’s sustained high winds Monday took out power to hundreds of thousands of customers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The damage gets much more extensive as one approaches the storm’s Southern New Jersey landfall.

By today, however, power has been restored to most, if not all, customers on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire.

That’s a big improvement from utilities’ performance in last year’s Halloween snowstorm, which left some people without power for a week or more. The slow repairs angered customers. So, too, did the arrogance displayed by utility officials. Marcy Reed, Massachusetts president for National Grid, infamously said last fall about the delay in restoring power: “We do live in New England and this is what the weather is.”

Reed had quite a different tone this time around.

“Every storm offers an opportunity for us to do better,” Reed told reporter Bill Kirk. “While we do believe we improved our performance since last fall’s storms, we will continue to work in partnership with our communities to further enhance our preparedness, restoration and communications processes so that we can better serve our customers.”

Indeed, the performance of National Grid and other utilities has improved.

National Grid said most of its Essex County customers would have power restored by midnight Thursday. Reed said the Merrimack Valley was among the hardest hit areas of the state.

In Southern New Hampshire, Unitil finished its repairs Wednesday. Public Service of New Hampshire expected to complete repairs by Thursday midnight. New Hampshire Electric Co-op also expected to have power restored last night to all but a few isolated customers.

Part of the improved performance can be attributed to the early warnings on Sandy. Weather forecasters had been predicting for days that Sandy would be a huge storm that would have a widespread impact on the East Coast.

Utilities had prepositioned repair crews across the northeast, ready to begin work as soon as the storm abated. That was in sharp contrast to last year’s blizzard, after which wide areas of Massachusetts and New Hampshire remained dark while repair crews drove in from other parts of the country.

In Massachusetts, Reed of National Grid was much more visible, even taking calls on the radio to advise individual customers on when their power might be restored.

Utilities have also been more aggressive in trimming tree limbs that had posed a threat to power lines.

One other reason for this newfound dedication to quick repairs may be the massive fine of $16 million Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley recommended for National Grid’s poor performance after the October 2011 snowstorm. The Department of Public Utilities is expected to rule on the proposed fine within the next few weeks.

The performance of National Grid and other utilities certainly has improved this time. But the fine should stand, not only as punishment for the truly abysmal performance last year, but also for its clear value as a motivator of utilities’ current behavior.