Maine utility storm damage and response in question

Thursday, November 9, 2017

As Maine recovers from widespread power outages following a storm, what will the event mean for how its public utilities design, operate, and maintain their electric grids?

On October 30, 2017, a storm brought winds and heavy rain to much of New England. In Maine, about 500,000 people lost power, with the state's largest utility Central Maine Power Company reporting the largest number of outages in the company's history and Emera Maine reporting the most widespread outages since 1998.

The utilities had taken some steps to prepare for the storm, describing advance planning to "ensure that adequate resources are in place to restore power outages that might occur as a result of the storm." After the storm passed, line crews from out of state arrived to provide mutual aid. Maine Governor Paul LePage issued an emergency proclamation to allow drivers of electrical line repair vehicles to operate additional hours during storm restoration efforts. By November 5 -- about one week after the storm -- the utility reported that it had restored power to about 99 percent of customers who had lost service, with about 6,000 customers left to go.

A convoy of utility repair trucks after the storm.

Now that the lights are back on in most homes and businesses, most people have cleaned spoiled food from refrigerators and freezers and are back at work. But the storm and outage have thrown a spotlight on the reliability of Maine's electricity grid, and utility preparation and response to storms. Some customers are complaining, pointing to the loss to the state economy caused by the blackouts, on top of personal inconvenience. As with past storms and outages such as the 1998 New England ice storm, preparation, operational response, and communications with customers and policymakers are focal points for complaint.

Some of the present complaints focus on the fact that what has been called the worst power outage in Maine history comes just two years after CMP completed its $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Program transmission upgrades. Other complaints focus on the utility's communications with customers -- while CMP's website provided real-time outage information during the storm including estimates on when service will be restored, the Portland Press Herald reported that CMP has acknowledged problems with the web listings, causing customer frustration over inaccurate information.

The Bangor Daily News cites a Maine Public Utilities Commission spokesman as saying that, following further information gathering, the regulatory agency may consider changes to regulation to better hold transmission and distribution utilities accountable for outages and storm restoration efforts. Maine law also allows the Commission to institute a complaint or investigation proceeding into any matter affecting utility service, and requires the Commission to investigate if ten or more aggrieved people file a complaint against a utility.

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