Energy Secretary Responds To Lingering Outages

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Four days after a freak October Nor'easter swept through the Northeast, about 200,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts remained without power. Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday said that he's losing patience with the slow speed of power restoration and that the electric utilities would have to "step it up." For a response to this mounting exasperation with the utility companies, WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan, who oversees the Department of Public Utilities.

SACHA PFEIFFER: Secretary, what is a reasonable amount of time to expect power to be restored after a storm like last weekend's?

RICHARD SULLIVAN: I don't think that there's any amount of time that's a barometer of reasonable or unreasonable, but I think it clearly needs to be stepped up. There's a growing frustration, which we certainly are seeing from customers. I, too, am a customer that hasn't had heat and power for the past five days, so I understand. It is unprecedented, the level of scrutiny and oversight that the DPU is applying. And we will do, as we do after every major event, a debrief and look to see what that level of response was this particular time, understanding that each storm is different — but look at that and, if necessary, we have the option and will open up an administrative proceeding.

The utilities, as you know, have said that this was an extraordinary storm given the timing and given the heavy leaf cover on trees and, as a result, there's a lot of damage that takes a lot of time and that people need to be patient. Do you think that's a legitimate defense?

Well, it certainly is an unusual storm, but I think it does start to beg a larger question: there's been three or four major weather events that are all unusual if you look at the history of the Commonwealth, so I think it does start to beg the question about what the delivery system in Massachusetts is going to look like in the coming years.

Last season, National Grid was financially penalized for its delayed response to a storm. Does that suggest to you that there need to be more penalties? That businesses and other customers need to be compensated once power has been out beyond a certain point?

I think it absolutely means that there needs to be strong review, and not only were there penalties assessed in the case that you just talked about, but there's currently an open case against National Grid and NSTAR for their response to [Tropical Storm] Irene.

The utilities say that what's really impeding their progress or slowing down their progress is a lot of tree limbs down, so they need to do a lot of tree removal before they can even get the wires up. Do you consider that a big piece of this? That there's inadequate tree maintenance?

In this particular storm, there are a lot of individual trees down and a lot of individual connections that have been impacted. It is significant in this, but the DPU does take the issue of reviewing how much money is being spent on vegetation management, which includes tree removal and branch trimming. But that all goes to the reliability of the system.

Back in 2008, Unitil took a lot of heat for a very delayed response getting power back on; I think it took them 12 days for many customers. This year, Unitil got its customers back up four days after this recent storm. Why is it, do you think, that we're seeing such a different pace among power companies?

Well, I do think that not only did they have that delayed response after the ice storm, but the DPU took a very aggressive position in their rate case that was just recently decided by the DPU. I do think there's a correlation between aggressive oversight and getting certain responses from the utility companies, and they will be the first utility company that will be totally finished.

The power lines that went down in this recent storm were aboveground power lines, obviously; if they had been below ground they wouldn't have gone down. Does this raise the larger question of whether more communities in the state need to invest in an underground grid?

That is absolutely a discussion that we need to have at the DPU and in the Department of Energy Resources and with the utilities as they're coming in front of us. And that is that, where appropriate, a hardening of the system where it is feasible or where other construction has already taken place and the roads are already being opened if what we're seeing here with three or four major storms over the last year is what we can expect as the new normal here in Massachusetts.

This program aired on November 2, 2011.


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