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Bay State PUC has more power

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 22. 2013 8:31PM
A tree crew was on Back River Road in Bedford on Thursday clearing branches around power lines. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Second of two parts

When the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission was unhappy with the performance of electric utilities after Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm, commissioners issued a critical report and recommended changes in procedure.

In Massachusetts, the PUC did all that, then hit utilities with nearly $25 million in fines for failing to restore power in a timely fashion.

Beyond the big storms, the PUC in the Bay State has the authority to fine utilities for failure to meet day-to-day quality standards, while the PUC in New Hampshire has no such authority and, for now, no interest in asking the Legislature to grant it, according to Tom Frantz, head of the N.H. PUC's Electric Division.

"We prefer the carrot over the stick," he said, "and the carrot has been working fairly well. If that changes, we could ask the Legislature for a stick."

Frantz said recommendations made by the PUC in the wake of the two major 2011 events have been implemented and are helping maintain network stability on a day-to-day basis while shortening the time it takes to restore power after major storms.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, a close monitor of utility performance in the state for more than a decade, agrees that no legislation is needed, for now. He pointed to a vague statute, last updated in 2008, that gives the PUC authority to fine utilities up to $250,000 under a narrow set of conditions. It has never been used.

"I think it would be a bit of an overreaction at this point for the Legislature to step in and say we need that kind of fining authority," he said, referring to Massachusetts. "All the utilities in New Hampshire have made strides, some more than others, but they're all working on these issues."

Other states are following the Bay State lead in adopting more aggressive enforcement tools. New York recently enacted rules that establish performance goals for utilities, with fines for failure to meet them.

"The New Hampshire PUC has the statutory authority to levy fines, but hasn't adopted rules linking penalties to performance metrics," said PSNH spokesman Martin Murray. "That doesn't mean they haven't sought to improve performance, but they have not chosen to do it in the way other states may have."

A tough question

Do the more aggressive regulations in Massachusetts mean Bay State utilities do better on standard industry measurements of performance than their neighbors to the north? There is no way to answer that question to any degree of scientific accuracy, but the numbers filed in PUC reports suggest "blue-sky power outages" — the loss of power not related to a major weather event — last longer in New Hampshire, affect a larger percentage of customers and are more frequent.

The average duration of blue-sky outages in New Hampshire, per customer, was in the range of 140 to 160 minutes in 2012, while in Massachusetts, the duration was in the range of 85 to 96 minutes.

New Hampshire customers also appear to experience more service interruptions on a per-capita basis. In 2012, PSNH reported 6,688 interruptions among its 500,000 customers. The much larger National Grid, with 1.2 million customers in eastern Massachusetts, reported 7,817 interruptions.

NSTAR, a sister company to PSNH under Northeast Utilities ownership, reported 6,014 interruptions on a customer base of 1.1 million in the Boston and Cape Cod areas.

PSNH spokesman Murray cautions against drawing any conclusions about system reliability and performance from the "Quality Service Reports" filed with utilities in both states.

"We could not honestly compare our data against theirs without a comprehensive analysis of their data," said Murray, regarding the Bay State utilities. "National Grid may have different criteria for establishing an interruption; they may have different criteria for defining 'major' storms. This is quite likely, since they are in a different state with a different regulatory body."

Even within the same state, regulators establish different definitions of "major storm" for each utility. Unitil consists of two separate regions, the Capital and Seacoast regions, each of which has its own definition of "major storm."

For PSNH, a major event occurs any time 10 percent or more of the company's retail customers lose power, with more than 200 reported interruptions; or when there are more than 300 interruptions, regardless of the number of customers affected.

Other forces at work

Outside of variations in criteria set by different regulators, there are other forces at work, Murray said.

The Massachusetts utilities have a more concentrated customer base in more urban areas. While National Grid serves twice as many customers as PSNH, the New Hampshire utility serves more separate communities, 211 compared with 170. The utilities serving eastern Massachusetts probably have fewer trees to deal with, fewer poles, and a smaller number of miles of line to maintain.

"Our more rural areas do tend to see more frequent outages, if only because there are simply more trees and wildlife in these areas, both of which can cause trouble on the system," said Unitil spokesman Alec O'Meara. "The more rural the area, the greater likelihood a stray branch, bird or squirrel will cause an outage."

Like PSNH, Unitil has outfitted many poles with squirrel guards, designed to keep the critters from standing on their hind legs atop a transformer and grabbing the wire above.

"These guards are effective," said O'Meara, "but anyone who has seen a motivated squirrel attack a bird-feeder will know that no system is totally squirrel-proof."

Whatever the reason, the numbers look better south of the border when it comes to the reliability of electrical service.

In 2012, the average Unitil customer experienced 1.73 outages, resulting in a total of about 156 minutes without power in that year, not counting major storms. In the same year, the average National Grid customer in eastern Massachusetts experienced 0.85 outages, lasting on average 85.56 minutes.

Numbers improving

The averages conceal the effect on individual consumers, some of whom never experience a blue-sky outage, and others who experience them frequently. Massachusetts utilities must report the performance of each circuit — a device that provides a path for electrical current to flow — and participate in an incentive program that rewards them for speedy improvements in the most problematic area.

New Hampshire utilities do not report their data to the PUC on a circuit-by-circuit basis, although regulators will ask for that information if they get too many calls from a certain neighborhood, according to Amanda Noonan, head of the N.H. PUC Office of Consumer Affairs.

The good news is that performance is improving in New Hampshire, based on the Quality Service Reports. The average duration of an outage, the frequency, the number of customers interrupted and the number of interruptions all improved in 2011 over 2012. Reports on 2013 won't be available until early 2014.

A typical outage at a PSNH substation, where electricity from power plants and transmission lines is transformed from high to lower voltage, would last 20 to 30 minutes six years ago, according to Paul Ramsey, vice president for energy delivery at PSNH.

"That's now down to one or two minutes," he said.

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