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December 21. 2013 10:09PM

'Blue-sky outages' a dark cloud for utilities

First of two parts

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.

"Over the past four years I would guess that I have spent (thousands of dollars) on wasted groceries, medicines, hotel expenses and missed work days," she said. "I have been living in Windham for the last four years, and during that time I have been without power more than 20 times during the winter months and sometimes even during the summer."

Windham is in a part of the state that appears to be a hot spot for what utility companies call "blue-sky outages" - a loss of power not related to a major weather event.

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.

But what about the performance of the delivery companies on a day-to-day basis? The PUC keeps an eye on the routine performance of PSNH, Unitil, the N.H. Electric Cooperative and Liberty Utilities (formerly Granite State Electric), the regulated utilities responno regulated utilities respond no matter who provides it.

Utilities have to report annually on the number of outages, their duration and the number of customers affected, after filtering out the impact of severe weather events, as defined by the PUC.

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)

Spokesmen for utilities and regulators cautioned against using the numbers to compare performance among utilities, given the variation in factors such as urban versus rural settings and numbers of customers. But they are a good measurement of whether a particular utility is improving from one year to the next.

Improvement on paper

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.

"We're trying to get the biggest bang for the dollar to reduce outages on the system, so we go after the most problematic areas," said Paul Ramsey, vice president for energy delivery at PSNH, who declined to reveal exactly where those problem areas are.

"We'd rather not do that," he said, "because many of those won't be problematic in the near future. They may have already been corrected this year. It depends on the timing."

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.

Not just storms

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.

"That area is served primarily from two long circuits that run along roadways where there are many, many trees. Over time, there's been population growth and a load growth, so there are more customers along these circuits," Murray said.

More than 30,000 customers in the state lost power after strong winds knocked down tree limbs on Nov. 24, including 1,258 in Derry, 2,013 in Salem and 1,217 in Windham.

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."

In the past five years, the PSNH budget for tree trimming has gone from $16.2 million a year to $20.6 million. At Unitil, the number has gone from $800,000 to $2.9 million, all of it, of course, built into electricity rates.

The "enhanced tree trimming," as the utilities call it, started after the 2008 ice storm.

"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."

In addition to more aggressive tree trimming, utilities are doing big things, including installing new high-tech devices along the power lines to minimize the impact and duration of outages, and small things, such as installing squirrel barriers at substations.

A 'defining issue'

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."

Quinlan said the PSNH service area seems to "have a bull's-eye on it" for bad weather, with eight of the worst outages in the company's history occurring in the recent past.

"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."

Keene thinks more prodding from state regulators might speed up those improvements and wonders why the New Hampshire PUC can't fine utilities in New Hampshire for poor performance, as is done in Massachusetts, New York and other states.

The PUC in the Bay State levied nearly $25 million in fines on three regulated electric utilities because of their poor performance in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm.

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.

"Massachusetts fines and regulates the utility companies for their failures, but it would seem New Hampshire lawmakers have little care for how their constituents get through the winter," said Keene.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


In Part 2 of our series, we look at the Bay State vs. New Hampshire: Who does better? Massachusetts' aggressive regulatory environmentis not mirrored in New Hampshire. Are the hefty fines issued south of the border the answer to keeping utilities on their toes?


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