EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 29, 2012

PSNH reports on response to Sandy

Utility touts improved response

By Jo-Anne MacKenzie

---- — Just a month after Hurricane Sandy left 1.3 million New England customers in the dark, New Hampshire’s largest utility issued a report on its own storm response.

At the peak of the outage here, Public Service of New Hampshire had 137,000 customers without power, some 26 percent of its customer base.

Three days later, PSNH had restored power to 99.9 percent of its customers, according to the report. The restoration cost is estimated at $12 million.

The storm ranks as the utility’s fourth largest restoration ever, with the top five all occurring since 2008.

The report credits advance planning, improved communication with customers and more assessors in the field as significant factors in its response. The storm caused more damage here than Irene did a year earlier, the report says, but PSNH completed its restoration in less time.

Early warning and preparation time made all the difference, according to utility spokesman Martin Murray.

“Unlike ‘Snowtober,’ when no one had any idea we were going to suffer the damage we did, we knew this time,” he said yesterday. “We had a very successful restoration effort; part of the credit is pre-staging and preparation, based on the forecast.”

That pre-staging including having crews in Texas, Oklahoma and several other states ready to help out, well in advance of any damage.

“That ended up paying off because troops were basically on the ground,” Murray said. “The amount of repairs made in three days time was extraordinary.”

Dozens of crews arrived from Hydro Quebec on the second day of restoration, a fact Murray said likely cut a day, even two, from the restoration process.

PSNH has a strong social media presence during outages, something Murray also pointed to as part of its successful recovery from the storm.

“We were actually the first utility in the U.S. to use social media proactively and interactively, starting with the ice storm in 2008,” he said. “We can’t provide the answer to every question asked, but it provides us with another communication tool to interact with customers. Sometimes all they want to know is someone is listening.”

PSNH and the municipalities it serves have established single points of contact in each town, an individual who is in contact with the utility 24 hours a day, and passes information along to other officials and residents.

“The system works,” Murray said.

That may be tough for some customers to swallow, particularly some in Windham and Londonderry, who often are among the last to have power restored.

Blame Mother Nature, Murray says, not the utility.

“Several areas since 2008 seem to be hit very hard, along the Interstate 93 corridor is one of those areas. In any weather event, some areas are hit and some areas are not,” he said. “It’s a product not of our system, but a product of the weather event causing damage.”

That said, PSNH is ready to work with homeowners and communities to see whether they face unique challenges that can be addressed, he said.

Tree trimming is a big part of any utility’s storm preparation. PSNH now spends $14 million a year doing just that, Murray said. But there are obstacles, even after the Legislature made changes that smooth the way for utilities to do what needs doing within the trim zone.

But there are challenges, he said, including scenic road designations, which vary dramatically from town to town, and can present real difficulties for power companies looking to cut branches or whole trees.

With this storm, the damage could have been much worse — and it was in states to the south. That fact may have contributed to people being a bit more patient and understanding, he said.

“In large measure, despite the damage and devastation we suffered, we were spared the downright misery of other states to the south which are still trying to recover from an unbelievable natural disaster,” he said.

But, bottom line, people expect the lights to go on when they flip a switch.

“We recognize the bar is being set ever higher. People depend on the commodity of electricity as they never have before and there is an expectation that it will always be there.” he said. “That’s our goal. It’s a challenge, but one we welcome to face.”

As for the storm cost, it’s not something ratepayers will see right away in terms of higher bills, but they might down the road. State regulators look at the cost of major storms, what percentage of that ought to be recovered from customers and over what time period.

As Murray said, “All of our costs are paid by our customers; it’s what we use to pay our bills.”

Follow Jo-Anne MacKenzie on Twitter @ETNHEditor.