Keller @ Large: How To Fix Routine Power Outage Issues

BOSTON (CBS) – Gov. Deval Patrick said many homes and businesses may not get their electricity back before the end of the week following the weekend snow storm.

It’s the latest string of long, painful outages for people in several towns after a tornado and a tropical storm hit the state earlier this year.

It turns out that the answer isn’t in the cards. It’s in the trees.

“If you look at the Ice Storm, the hurricane, and this storm, the common denominator is really the trees,” said Craig Hallstrom, the NStar VP of Operations.

WBZ’s Jon Keller is at large:

Cutting back trees that threaten power lines is a big job, and one the utlities already spend millions on.

Do the power companies and the state need to change the way they prepare for storms and the way they respond to them?

“I think the utilities’ plans are sound. I think they’re executing on those plans well,” Patrick told WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller at a news conference Monday.

“I think if you’re the one who’s been without power for a day, then you are naturally frustrated. But I think that the number of crews – I think I’m right about this – is unprecedented and the mutual aid that we’re getting from as far away as Canada or Louisiana is very helpful.”

“This event, the National Weather Service actually gave us 24 hours in the forecast. They were very out in front of the storm,” MEMA Director Kurt Schwartz told reporters.

“It allowed us to spend up to 24 hours preparing, but there are some similarities. We’re in cold weather now, where in Irene we were in warm weather. It’s causing more challenges for people that are without power.”

So how can the state and utilities prevent widespread outages in the future?

Should all the power lines be buried underground?

“I love the idea,” Patrick said. “Apparently that’s a $1 trillion project across the whole of the Commonwealth.”

So how would it be paid for?

“No one has answered yet,” the governor said.

Larry Powers and his neighbors around Wilson Lane in Acton are in the dark this Halloween. “It looks very spooky, it has a spooky look to it, but this is reality.” And this reality is one they’ve seen before. Just two months ago, after Hurricane Irene, the same neighborhood was in the dark for five days.

Ann O’Grady says after the fear and frustration she felt during Irene, she was determined to demand change.

She says, “I wasn’t willing to go through that whole thing again. I called NStar and said you need to come to Acton and restore power to Acton much quicker than five days.”

And this time, they did. NStar crews are working through the night in the Wilson Lane to clear trees in the road and repair power lines.

WBZ-TV’s Karen Anderson reports from Acton

O’Grady says she still plans to attend public hearings to voice her concerns about NStar’s the response to Irene.

State officials say utilities have learned lessons from the recent storms. They say they demanded the utilities do a better job communicating with the customers on their progress and plans, and have seen good results.

They say there are also more crews this time than the past storms. There are 1,500 crews on the ground as of Monday night, and 2000 are expected to be working by Tuesday morning.

Energy officials say part the problem with the ice storm was that it came as a surprise, and Irene’s lack of response is in part due to the fact that so many other states were affected and needed to keep their crews.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Martha Coakley released a statement:

“We are monitoring the restoration efforts currently underway by utility companies throughout the state. Some municipalities have again expressed concerns over a lack of communication and preparation for this unprecedented October snowstorm, similar to the reports we received after Tropical Storm Irene. We are actively reviewing those concerns.”

WBZ-TV’s Karen Anderson contributed to this report.

More from Jon Keller
  • FireGuyFrank

    Spend the time and money to bury utility lines. Start in rural and suburban areas where trees are more plentiful and work in towards cities. (It will also allow for more planning for that part of the project.)

    When done, there will be better views; much fewer roadside hazards (telephone polls); and, few power outages.

    • A

      How dare you enter these forums with common sense and productive suggestions ?

      Absolutely correct and adding to your comment.

      You really don’t have to spend all that much either. Do it as part of regular road repair.

      Love this country but Geee, countries in Africa has better infrastructure than us.
      We can only aspire to become a 3rd world country when it comes to infrastructure. Sad sad

      But hey, them union workers have job security by not digging them down. They get to come out at the tail end of the next storm again. Whups – did I just make an unjust assumption ??

      • Brian

        Common sense would include the answer regarding how to pay for it. It’s easy to say, “bury the wires”, but unless you’re willing to put up the trillion dollars yourself, it’s meaningless.

      • petem

        A, agree with most of what you say…But blame the unions? Really? Do you know people who work for the electric utilities who have seen the number of crews reduced and their hours always on the chopping block, then boom! something like this happens and they don’t see family for maybe weeks at a time. If these greedy SOB’s who run these companies could care about the public part of being a public utility, rather than what their bonus would be if they bust the unions a little more, we’d be in better shape..

      • A

        Yes it will cost money. I question the Trillion dollars but okay, let’s use that.
        How much are these outages costing this state and the consumers. Not only in
        loss but in the mere salary to the folk out there cutting trees and putting the wires back up ? I will argue that yes, it will be a chunk of money, but if anything ever paid for itself, this would be the case.

        We could start finding some of the initial money for it by removing police details at construction sites

        The electricity companies are private enterprises and they don’t care about private people just like the cell phone companies don’t care about there customers etc etc. It is about the money to them.

        But propose a solution to fix long term issues like this, I will garantee you that the union will have an opinion. Just like they did ref my reply to Brian when the people wanted flagmen instead of detail officers.

        Bottom line. There is no money in fixing a problem. The money is in patching it.

      • Brian

        There are many people who disagree with you about police details at construction sites: It is critical that people remember that a solution is not just something that they like, but something that they can convince most other people is right. It’s a cop-out to claim that you have a great idea but other people simply won’t kowtow to your preferences and fiat.

        Beyond that, I doubt anyone thinks that such a move would raise any significant amount of funding vis a vis the true cost of burying power lines (safely). So it’s not really a constructive move forward to put forward that kind of suggestion. Non-starters are not going to get the work done. Indeed, putting forward non-starters is one of the big tactics used by politicians to essentially get nothing done, when getting something done would actually be counter-productive to their re-election aspirations.

        What trillion dollar sacrifice are you not only willing to endure, but can convince enough others to buy-into?

  • StanleyRamon

    This is something that bugs me. I understand that the power grid may be more complicated nowadays than it was 20 years ago, but doesn’t that mean you need more qualified people to keep it going? 20 years ago we did not lose power with the frequency and length of time that we do today. Hundreds of thousands of people without power because of an average Nor’easter, here in New England? I don’t get it. In my opinion it has to do with the quality and training of the work force, and the fact that too much of the power grid is covered by too few companies. It seems to me that municipalities, years ago, had more responsibility and accountability in insuring that trees were cut back properly and power lines were maintained sufficiently to prevent long term power outages. Underground utilities will only create another kind of problem. The trillion dollars it would cost could be cut in half by simply updating the power lines and poles that are there now.

    • Windsor

      This wasnt an average Nor’Easter, although it was very similar to the stoms that we got in the middle of winter last year, the difference is in the time of the year it hit. If this storm hit in another month when there are no leaves on the trees there would be no problem. All the snow piled up on the leaves causing the trees and branches to break.

    • Brian

      I wonder to what extent the blame can be placed on homeowners who object to having their trees cut back so far. There is a lot of corruption in this state – in the form of people using friends or the media to browbeat the government from doing what’s most prudent.

  • Mike

    Stanley Ramon is correct Workers these days are only worried about the next cup of coffee and the next day off.You think they really care if you have power? Years ago people did there jobs the right way or else they would be replaced.nowadays they run the show.

  • Seriously?

    After living in New England for 50yrs, I’d say, this was a “drop in the bucket” Nor’easter and the schmuks in charge of the power grid either dont’ give a rip, or hire unqualified workers if they can’t have power restored within 24 hours after a storm they had plenty of time to plan for. But let’s face it, they charge ridiculous fees for 25yr old wires (delivery fees) and they have no solid plan to replace or maintain them. I’m thinking on this one we all got raped!

    • Tsal

      Seriously —– seriously? When was the last noreaster you remember in new England in those 50 years and when is the last time you remember nearly full foliage this late in October. Everyone was warned well before the storm. If people were not expecting or prepared to lose power—they have only themselves to blame.

    • Jane

      Forty years ago, Niagara Mohawk had small crews that were part of every community. Then they went to centralized crews. I live in Cambridge, NY and the crew that serviced us was moved to Saratoga. The next thing, Ni Mo sold out to National Grid and service became worse although not to the extent the Boston area is receiving. Congress needs to spend money on infastructure, including power and water, not on bailing out big business. Big business (the buying up of small business) seems to be part of this present problem.

      • Brian

        I feel that we can generally determine blame by watching from which direction the blame is flowing. That’s typically where the blame should be placed. In this case, the biggest noise is coming from residential electric consumers, but I wonder to what extent those consumers would be willing to do without jobs, or have their tax burden substantially increased, or have the fees they pay substantially increased, or have myriad other services that are currently provided to them slashed, in return for building infrastructure up so well that it can weather peaks and valleys with only minimal impact on those consumers.

        I just don’t think consumers are willing to do their part in all this – giving up so much such that whatever systems that need to change can change in the manner necessary. We all need to start thinking about what are _we_ willing to sacrifice. Even if it is to sacrifice our favored political party and all it represents, both economical and socially, to foster support for a completely different perspective where the kinds of concerns that Jane is advocating for.

        I would like to think people – average folks – have it in them to muster the kind of principled approach to life that that would require, but so far I don’t see any evidence of a broad-enough base of support for a new way. The Occupy protests claim that that is what they are, but that’s belied by their unwillingness to place themselves on a firm foundation, where their objectives and strategies can be reviewed and appraised with integrity.

      • blackbear1

        Good post Jane. Years ago we lived way up in Vermont near the Quebec border. This was truely a land that time forgot. However between there and Montreal and beyond there were never any power outages. Winter came early and was very unpleasant.

  • gvb

    Why not simply prohibit people from growing trees that are taller than power lines within falling distance of power lines? Florida does this. And it may be cheaper than burying the lines.

  • fireman mark

    Hey,here’s a politically incorrect idea.Take the prisoners who pick up trash along the highway on those sunny,bright summer days and have THEM out with power crews picking up the dead branches and helping while the power company trained workers are in the bucket trucks doing the technical work! Oh,wait a minute,this is Massachusetts.We can’t have prisoners out of their nice warm cells and away from their cable t.v. and computers working on their B.A’s in B.S. That would be just soo unfair.After all,they have rights!! Wait a minute…let’s get welfare receipients…never mind; that would be WORK. We all know that these folks can’t do anything that even remotely resembles work!!

    • Enough

      don’t forget the illegals, good way for them to “earn” some right to be here… oh wait, the Liberals wouldn’t want them to feel discriminiated against or offended

  • The Owl

    How many storms where the utilities “learn their lesson” will it take before they actually demonstrate their knowledge gain.

    We’ve been hearing that same excuse since electricity was provided to the home!

  • Ron

    When a way is figured out how to make money by solving a problem it will happen and not before.

    • gvb

      You should know that utility companies recover their expenses by incorporating them into the rates paid by consumers. This includes expenses related to downed trees and fixing service outages. It would also include expenses related to forward-looking improvements in infrastructure, like preventative tree-cutting or burying lines, for example.

      But you should also know that utility company shareholders are guaranteed a “reasonable return” on their investment in these companies, something around a 3% profit–I’m not sure. The Commonwealth prevents this from becoming too high by regulating them through the Department of Public Utilities, and the Attorney General constantly audits their books to make sure they aren’t sneaking in unfair expenses, like mansions in California (true story!).

      Because people must pay for electricity no matter what (subject to some laws protecting those with low or no income from having their heat turned off etc.), there is no real incentive to increase or decrease expenses. Most pain comes when the AG sues utility companies. For example, the AG recovered over $8 million (all of it credited toward lower bills for ratepayers) following Unitil’s negligence that caused the mass outages after the big ice storm in Central Mass a few years ago.

      Source: I worked for a few months as an intern with the Massachusetts AG’s office in the department of public utilities.

  • Marty

    Burying distribution lines wouldn’t help much with the issues we have here with this snow storm!! The transmission lines have gone down (out in the woods, right-of-ways, etc.) in addition to the distribution (along the streets) lines. the remote and/or difficult to access transmission lines rarely go down, and are very difficult and time consuming to fix!! they are all getting major upgrades but it’s a huge long process that takes years and years….and the permitting process starts years before any work can be done at all. It is currently on-going throughout new england.

    putting distribution lines underground would be a nightmare and just introduce new problems, like flooding!! When you have problems with underground lines, they’re not as easy to locate and not as easy to fix as overhead. that would also require digging up roads and yards and disturbing traffic flows, not to mention the money involved for what benefits? Pretty much none. and who wants to have a big huge pad-mount transformer in their front yard sitting there humming all day long?? nobody.

    it’s true, the power companies have cut back on crew size to save money. rarely do you see a line crew with guys under 40 years old!! many are ready to retire and can’t work 36 hours straight like a crew of 20-30 year old guys can. it’s hard, dangerous work….one mistake and you’re dead. but just like every other type of company, the power companies have been trimming the workforce to help the bottom line. all companies are guilty of it, but not all companies provide a service that people can no longer live without!!

    The solution: help yourself!! The government and/or some big company isn’t going to help you, they are the problem. The solution is YOU!! Buy a generator and you’ll be prepared to deal with these types of situations. Suck it up, things could be a lot worse!

    • Marty

      P.S. I’m an industry consultant with first hand knowledge of how things get done (or not).

      • Tsal

        Great post Marty. It was a power outage. Big deal. And this was anything but a typical storm. Good grief. We have an unusual amount of leaves left on trees coupled with an hystorically early and heavy snow. Two inches of cement snow on trees with nearly full foliage will take them down. As advertised folks. If you want to blame anyone try blaming the towns that don’t trim tree branches off wires. Better yet enjoy it. It’s a lack of power. You had warning. Prepare. Heaven knows it could be so much worse. if you can’t make it without power for a few days it would seem there is a problem. Yes people have medical needs etc but if don’t have plan B it is your problem and not the utility company.

  • ikeB

    One of the problems is ihat the power guys wont do their work until the tree guys clear trees and branches, but the tree guys wont do their work until the power guys take care of their end. i assume it’s a safety issue for both parties.

  • Ed wall

    How about the 100 trucks national grid has parked in Billerica,for over a year

  • jm

    N-star is just another greedy company blaming everything on the storm or trees or town officials.N-Star has printed lies saying the town officials won’t let them fix a particular blown transformer.Town officials said it was a lie.. This blown transformer was not the result of downed wires ,trees, road blocks, or anything else to do with the storm. It was the result of old, outdated, poorly maintained equitment. All that needs to be done is replace the transformer, an hour job with a decent crew. No trees to cut down, no poles to replace. Just do your job. If N-star had maintained these transformers and replaced to old ones on a schedule. these five families would not be left in the cold. The rest of the town has had electricity almost throughout the storm.

  • graywolf

    Do people understand what the cost would be to hire enough crews to any any and all emergencies such as this last storm? Have people become so used to our easy life and high tech that the least little inconvenience and the complaining starts, waa waa waa, I’ll miss my TV programs, etc. BUY A GENERATOR!! We bought one years ago, and have used it for every power outage since. We bought a small TV antenna and mounted that in the attic so we didn’t miss the news etc. What is wrong with Americans today? Do they want everyone else to think for them? God help us if we reall see a pandemic, there will be blood in the streets.

    • Tsal

      Good points but I’d go one step further. Give up the tv and power and and figure hownto make it work. It does work

  • margaret

    14 years ago when Edison was regulated..each area garage had 60 men the company had 3 executives…SINCE deregulation, slowly the executives have eliminated all but 30 servicemen in each garage and increased THE EXECUTIVES TO 13…WITH GIGANTIC SALARYS!! There aren’t enough men to do the work …regular work as well as emergencies. It takes years to train a lineman. The crews are older now, replacements. CALL THE UNION ASK THEM THERE THOUIGHTS..THE CONTRACT IS UP FOR RENEWAl soon.
    The company is merging with another power company…when that happens ..more layoffs, less service, more executives and executive perks.

    • Graywolf

      I could not agree with you more Margaret, our politicians and even the Attorney General cannot see through this smoke screen. Either they are turning a blind eye for political/payoff/support reasons, or they are too ignorant of what is before their eyes.

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