It turns out that a lot of what we suspected about the region's electric utilities is true. Changes in the way utilities maintain power lines and react to storms means long power outages are more common, an investigative report found.
A story by reporter Scott Van Voorhis of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (see today's front page) found that:
Over the past five years, major outages, once somewhat rare, have become annual occurrences.
Utilities have far too few linemen on staff to respond to storm-related outages promptly. They rely heavily on contract repair crews from other parts of the country that can take days just to get here and begin work.
What's worse, the cost of storm repairs on this aging, poorly maintained system with contract labor is staggering. But the utilities' shareholders need not worry. The companies expect to pass on the $160 million cost of repairs from last year's Tropical Storm Irene and the Halloween snowstorm to ratepayers. Those home owners and businesses are still paying the repair bills from the 2008 ice storm.
It's the classic abuse of monopoly power: a system designed to protect profits for shareholders at the expense of customers — who have nowhere else to go for their electricity.
State regulators need to stand up for ratepayers and stop the abuse.
When the Halloween snowstorm cut power to some in our area for up to a week, National Grid's Massachusetts President Marcy Reed was dismissive of complaints.
"We do live in New England and this is what the weather is," she said.
We wrote at the time that we remembered when we had a power grid that could stand up to New England weather. Weeklong power outages used to be a rarity.
It turns out our memory was correct. Van Voorhis found that major outages in Massachusetts quadrupled in the past five years to eight from two in the previous five-year period.
Similarly, New Hampshire has had five major outages in the past five years with none reported in the previous five-year period.
Part of the problem: The region's major utilities do not have enough front-line workers to deal with major storms, the NECIR investigation found.
Van Voorhis found that the big utilities have on average three linemen for every 10,000 customers. When big, storm-related outages strike, the power companies import line workers from other parts of the country — at enormous expense. Contracts call for the workers to be paid from the moment they leave their home base. They get double-time during waking hours and single-time pay while sleeping.
Line workers for last October's snowstorm came from as far away as the Sunbelt states — a journey of several days before they even begin to work.
By contrast, Van Voorhis surveyed 11 small, town-owned power companies. These municipal utilities employ as many as six linemen per 10,000 customers — and they are locals who know how the local system works.
The result was the municipal power companies had electricity restored much more quickly than the big utilities — sometimes within hours.
Why don't the big utilities just add more local linemen? That would be a business expense that would eat away at shareholders' profits. Better to pay the contract workers and claim a "catastrophic" expense that can be dumped on to the ratepayers.
That's also why utilities won't pay the cost of burying lines underground, where they would be immune to weather.
"They would rather have angry customers who can't go anywhere than angry investors who can throw them out of work," state Rep. Daniel Winslow, R-Norfolk, told Van Voorhis.
Winslow has filed legislation that would require utilities to give rebates to customers stuck without power for days on end. That's a start.
But the real answer to our increasingly third-world power problems is that the Public Utilities Commission has to stand up to the utilities. There should be no more passing on storm costs to ratepayers until the power companies prove they are spending sufficient resources to maintain and promptly repair their electrical lines.
Not every storm is a disaster. Utilities need to be better prepared for ordinary New England weather.