(TNS) - Municipal officials, union representatives and Maine’s public advocate said electric utilities were plagued by miscommunication, inadequate staffing and equipment failures after October’s windstorm that left some residents without power for 10 days.
More than three months have passed since a windstorm knocked out power to roughly 500,000 Maine residents. On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee heard more than five hours of testimony on Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine’s efforts to restore power while coordinating the work of cleaning up trees that blocked roads and hampered emergency response throughout the state.
Harpswell officials, for instance, testified that town crews waited in vain to hear from CMP about whether downed power lines were “hot” or deactivated before they could remove downed trees. Parts of Harpswell were in the dark for 10 days, despite CMP outage maps showing that much of the peninsula town had power.
“In my opinion, there are serious deficiencies in CMP’s communications and preparedness that pose a threat to public safety that need to be addressed – and solutions implemented – hopefully before our next declared state of emergency,” said Richard Daniel, chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Harpswell, where he said town crews waited days to hear from CMP.
With more than 460,000 affected customers, CMP accounted for nearly one-third of the 1.5 million customers throughout New England that lost power during the Oct. 30 storm. So it’s no surprise that much of Tuesday’s committee oversight hearing focused on concerns about CMP’s massive logistical response to the power outages throughout its territory. The committee’s oversight hearing is separate and parallel to a Maine Public Utilities Commission investigation into CMP and Emera Maine’s handling of the October storm.
Many of those who testified Tuesday drew comparisons to the restoration effort after the 1998 ice storm, which knocked out power to more than 400,000 in Maine.
Dick Rogers, business manager of the IBEW Local 1837 union that represents utility workers, said it was “ridiculous” to suggest that the October windstorm was worse than the 1998 ice storm. Instead, Rogers attributed the prolonged restoration time to the fact that CMP has hundreds fewer line workers, assessors, meter readers and other workers today than it did in 1998 and, as a result, relies more heavily on out-of-state contractors unfamiliar with the system and the area.
“While this was a significant storm, we had great weather to work in compared to the 1998 ice storm,” said Rogers, who accompanied some out-of-state crews helping with the October restoration. “The fact that we did not have resources … caused this storm to last longer than necessary.”
CMP officials acknowledged the challenges with communications – both with municipalities and with consumers – and with the logistics of repairing more than 1,400 broken utility poles.
Speed of recovery 'remarkable'
The company estimates the storm response cost $69 million. But Eric Stinneford, vice president and controller of the company, said the fact that more than 450,000 customers had power within five days was “remarkable.”
“From a big-picture perspective, this was a remarkable effort,” he said. “Is there room for improvement? Absolutely, and that is why we are following up with municipalities and others about where we can improve.”
One of the major themes of Tuesday’s hearing was communication – or, in some cases, the lack of it.
Art Cleaves, director of emergency management for York County and the former head of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said his center had a “direct line” to CMP representatives throughout the storm. As a result, York County was able to help CMP prioritize the response to address life and safety concerns beginning at 3 a.m. on Oct. 30 and continuing throughout the storm.
“There are 114,000 service meters in York County and, at one point, 75,000 of those meters were out,” said Cleaves, who also worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “CMP did, in my mind, an excellent job in restoration and making lines safe, because by Saturday night all but, I think, … 200 of those service meters were back in service. So I think it was a good job, from that standpoint.”
Inaccurate data, meter failures
But Gordon Weil, a Harpswell resident and former Maine public advocate, called CMP’s internal organization “terrible” based on his observations. Weil also pointed out that the inaccurate outage maps and power restoration estimates made it difficult, if not impossible, for residents of his town to plan.
“That information was really bad,” Weil said. “It would haven been better to have no information than to have what was online.”
CMP’s outage tracking was also hampered, at least in part, by the failure of the “smart meters” that electronically report electricity usage to the utility.
Barry Hobbins, head of the Maine Office of the Public Advocate and a former chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, said the “smart meters” turned out to be “extremely dumb” when it came to the power outage. Hobbins said the breakdown of the smart meter system, combined with CMP’s other communications challenges, should serve as a lesson for reporting and tracking power outages in the future.
“We should not be relying solely on the information they are providing us,” Hobbins said. “We as a state of Maine need to put in place … a better reporting system.”
However, Stinneford disputed earlier reports that the smart meter system had broken down completely during the power outage, even calling comments by a company spokesman “unfortunate” and “uninformed.” The system was never more than 50 percent down, and even then CMP was able to use other metrics to track the outages, Stinneford said.
But he acknowledged the massive outage exposed problems in the system. Smart meters are designed to send a “last gasp” signal just before losing power, but the massive wave of outage signals overwhelmed the central system, he said.
“That was something that we haven’t experienced before and we hope we don’t experience it again,” Stinneford said.
Legislator remains dissatisfied
However, committee co-chair Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, appeared dissatisfied with CMP’s explanations. During a lively exchange, Berry repeatedly asked Stinneford why it took a month for the company to disclose the failures within the smart meter system, and only then in response to news accounts.
“I think CMP, to its credit, did a fantastic job during the 1998 storm of being proactive with communication and getting the word out … and giving much more accurate estimates for how long it would take to get power back,” Berry said. “But people were given really misleading information during this storm and I think it would have been more helpful if people were advised, not a month later but in real-time, that there were issues with the smart meters and you might want to call and let us know that you have an outage.”
Stinneford said 97 percent of customers had their electricity restored by Nov. 4, five days after the storm as estimated, and that the company’s website disclosed to visitors that they should not rely on the outage information.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:
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