In Wake Of Storm, Accusations And An Investigation

By WGBH News


Nov. 2, 2011

tree and downed sires

Trees caused power outages here in Foxboro, Mass., and all across New England. (Jaclyn Cashman/WGBH)

BOSTON — With about 200,000 Mass. residents and businesses still without power on November 2, Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley said her office would request an investigation into the utility companies' response to Oct. 29's historic storm — and representatives of the public and of the companies debated the best way to prevent future problems.

"Our office has received a variety of complaints regarding the power restoration process by the utilities," Coakley said in a statement. "Once power has been restored throughout the Commonwealth, we will petition the Department of Public Utilities to initiate a formal investigation into the companies’ restoration efforts, including their preparedness for this storm as well as their communications with local officials and customers in its aftermath."
State Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, discussed a bill he was proposing on "The Emily Rooney Show" on Wednesday afternoon. It would require utility companies to reimburse customers two days' worth of utility costs for each day they go without power.
He thought that would speed utility companies' response in future storms. “The reason that I proposed the power outage rebate bill was to create a market force, basically a financial incentive on the back end, to make failure so expensive that prevention then makes economic sense for them,” Winslow said.

Craig Hallstrom, vice president of electric operations at NStar, defended the company’s response to host Emily Rooney: “We have a very well-documented and –rehearsed storm response plan…. We mobilized very quickly.” He called it “a full, all-out response.”
As for the suggestion that companies relocate electrical wires underground, Hallstrom said that wouldn’t solve the problem. “Underground isn’t necessarily the silver bullet. When you put lines underground it’s a harsh environment as well, between water, salt, chemicals coming in off the streets. [And] the investment is significant.”
A better long-term solution, he said, was collaboration to keep tree branches out of the wires. When leaves are soaked with wet snow or whipped by wind, those trees break and take those wires down.

Hallstrom said, “I think most people, when they’re out, they can see the major source of the outages is trees. We at the utilities trim aggressively… but we only can go so far. It’s really a partnership between a community, the private customer and the state.”
Winslow was skeptical.
“If utilities have a utility easement, which they have, sure, they can’t cut down a private owner’s tree next door — but the branches that encroach on the easement certainly can be taken down by the utilities. And it’s no answer to say, well, towns have to step up because towns can’t even afford teachers and firefighters and cops right now,“ he said.
Hallstrom said that 6600 NStar customers were without power as of noon on Wednesday, mostly in the Waltham-Walpole-Framingham region. He hoped to get “the vast majority” of those customers plugged back in by late that night.

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