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December 21. 2013 10:08PM

Got a power problem??Call the problem solve

CONCORD - If you think you've experienced too many power outages and are unhappy with the utility's response, who you gonna call?

Surprisingly, it is not the Office of Consumer Advocate at the Public Utilities Commission. You'll want to talk to Amanda Noonan, head of the Office of Consumer Affairs. "There is a lot of confusion," Noonan said. "We have a number of different divisions."

The consumer advocate, Susan Chamberlin, represents the interests of utility customers before the PUC on the big-picture issues, such as rate cases and policy setting.

Customers these days get to choose who sells them electricity, but they don't get to choose who delivers it to their door. That remains a monopoly because no one wants to see multiple power lines dotting the landscape. Like most monopolies, the monopoly on electricity distribution is regulated, with state-appointed "utility analysts" to represent utility customers.

While Chamberlin is paid to represent consumers before the PUC and in the state Legislature, Noonan and her staff act as ombudsmen between frustrated consumers and their regulated utility.

"We don't respond to individual complaints about outages," said Chamberlin. "We look at the overall practices regarding outage reductions, like vegetation management, but we are not able to respond specifically to an individual situation."

That's where Noonan comes in. She has a staff of six to help her field complaints and follow through with the appropriate utility.

"Sometimes the circuit in question is on the utility priority list, and it's just a matter of communicating to the customer that the utility knows this is an issue and has scheduled work on the circuit by a certain time," she said.

Most of the calls come in the wake of major storms, which appear to be happening more frequently these days.

After eight major weather events in the past five years, consumers are getting skittish, she said, even during minor outages.

"Ever since the ice storm (of 2008), we have found a little uptick in people calling to report their power being out," she said. "Each time it happens, it's like ripping the Band-Aid off, over and over again."

The staff at the Office of Consumer Affairs is particularly busy in the wake of a major storm, but fields many "blue-sky" calls, as well. "We get people who call us and say, for example, 'I have to reset my clocks four or five times a month' for momentary outages that are inconvenient, but not a disruption," Noonan said.

In those cases, Noonan's office will ask the utility for five-year reliability statistics on the circuit in question and find out where it is on the priority schedule for upgrades.

When someone calls in with a complaint like that, we do take it seriously, and we understand it is disruptive to the caller," she said.

The Office of Consumer Affairs does more than mediate disputes between customers and regulated utilities.

It can also help set up payment plans for utility bills; explain the rules and regulations governing utilities; and provide information about public hearings. It even offers tips on energy conservation.

The office can be reached toll-free within New Hampshire at 1-800-852-3793; or by mail at 21 South Fruit St., Suite 10, Concord 03301.

Complaints can be also filed online at www.puc.state.nh.us. Select the link marked "consumer" on the top left of the home page.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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