'Blue-sky outages' a dark cloud for utilities
By DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader
Christina Keene went shopping for her Thanksgiving Day feast a week early this year, hoping to get a head start on the holiday. Unfortunately, a power outage in her Windham neighborhood wrecked her plans because she had to throw away a good part of the purchase due to spoilage.
The performance of regulated utilities such as PSNH or Unitil in restoring power after a calamity like the 2008 ice storm or 2011 October snowstorm gets a lot of attention and is subject to a report card by the Public Utilities Commission.
Those reports show some improvement from 2011 to 2012, the last full year for which statistics were available. The average time without power for a PSNH customer improved from 188 minutes in 2011 to 140 minutes in 2012. For a Unitil customer, the number went from 190 minutes in 2011 to 156 minutes in 2012. (See chart)
Those improvements on paper come as little solace to someone who lives in one of the areas served by the top 50 circuits that PSNH has identified as having the worst reliability on blue-sky days among the hundreds of circuits in its network. A circuit is a device that provides a path for electrical current to flow. "Long circuits'' is a reference to circuits that have a long distance between them on a power line.
The information provided to the PUC is based on the entire franchise area and is not broken down circuit by circuit. But it's likely that Windham and neighboring communities along the Massachusetts border that grew dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s are among the trouble spots.
Some of the outages in Windham over the past four years were due to major storms, but Martin Murray, a spokesman for PSNH, acknowledges that Windham has had its share of outages not related to big events. Keene says her blue-sky outages typically last from a couple of hours to a half-day and happen five to 10 times a year in all seasons.
PSNH is in the middle of a statewide project to cut more trees, install new equipment and otherwise improve the reliability of service. Said Murray: "We're hardening our infrastructure in a number of ways."
"The Legislature changed the laws so that we are now allowed to be more effective with our vegetation trimming," said Murray. "Prior to the ice storm, we actually had to alert every single customer along a trimming area that we would be trimming and get their permission to do so. Now the subtle change is that if we notify them that we will be trimming, and if we don't hear from them in 45 days, we can go ahead and trim."
For the new president of PSNH, Bill Quinlan, improving the reliability of the network is Job 1. "There are technologies and practices that will drive significant reliability improvements for our customers," he said as keynote speaker at an energy seminar on Dec. 12 hosted by the Business and Industry Association in Manchester. "And we are going to go after that."
"Over the past five years, we've had an inordinate number of storms and weather events that have affected our system," he said, "to the extent that it has become a defining issue for us. We've learned we need to do better, and we are going to be an industry leader in the critical area of system reliability."
The Massachusetts PUC also maintains an index of quality standards on frequency and duration of outages that utilities must meet, or face fines. If they exceed the quality benchmarks, they are rewarded.
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