Wednesday November 21, 2012

CONCORD, N.H. -- The state commission that regulates utilities has released a report card on four power companies’ responses to a freak 2011 snowstorm, giving Public Service of New Hampshire low marks but calling Unitil Energy Systems a "model."

The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission released the 60-page report this week on utilities’ preparation and restoration efforts with the storm, which put more than 300,000 homes and businesses in the dark.

The commission said PSNS did not line up enough crews in advance of the storm, had inadequate weather forecasting methods and failed to communicate in a timely fashion with municipal officials.

The report says PSNH management is reluctant to put outside utility crews in place due to costs and typically relies on its parent company -- Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities -- to obtain crews, "thereby hampering its own ability to pre-stage resources in a timely manner."

The commission also found PSNH’s self-assessment of its response to the storm lacked a detailed analysis of its power restoration efforts and a critique of management decisions.

PSNH spokesman Martin Murray says his company is still digesting the report, adding, "We learn from every storm."

The company has already implemented some of the recommendations, Murray said. It has hired more community liaison officers to streamline communication with municipalities.


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He also stressed that outside crews were obtained in advance of Superstorm Sandy hitting New Hampshire this year.

"We tried to get hundreds more crews, but it was not possible due to the incredibly broad nature of the storm," Murray said Wednesday.

The 2011 snowstorm began the night of Oct. 29 and continued for about 36 hours. The deepest snowfall accumulation -- 34 inches -- was recorded in Jaffrey.

The report notes that it was clear by early Friday that at least 4 inches of heavy wet snow would blanket the state and trees still lush with foliage, increasing the surface area for snow to accumulate, snap branches and take out power lines.

At the peak of power failures, PSNH had 237,000 customers without power, Unitil had 51,262, New Hampshire Electrical Cooperative had 18,687 and Granite State Electric Co. had 15,679.

The commission called Unitil’s storm management preparation "a model for other New Hampshire companies." It tripled its workforce before the storm started and restored power to 25 percent of its customers within 38 hours, the report said.

The commission received input from 249 electric customers during restoration efforts and nearly 500 more who responded to a survey. Many complained about the utility companies’ inability to give them an estimated of when power would be restored so they could plan accordingly.

The commission ordered each utility company to develop a method for predicting storm impact based on the five major storms of the past five years -- the December 2008 ice storm, the February 2010 wind storm, 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, the October 2011 snowstorm and Superstorm Sandy. The index is to be incorporated into each company’s Emergency Response Plan, which must be filed with the commission by March 1.

The October snowstorm produced the third most power failures in state history, with 315,000 of the state’s 700,000 customers in the dark. The December 2008 ice storm produced the most outages ever.

The commission credited all four electric companies for their attention to safety during restoration efforts. The report notes that utility crews suffered no serious injuries or fatalities while working long hours, often in deep snow.

The report says tree-trimming was not a factor in the extensive outages.

"Damage resulted from the weight of heavy snow on trees still laden with leaves, breaking whole trees and large limbs from well beyond the established trim zones -- bringing down wires and damaging distribution equipment," the report states.