Senate wants strict rules for utilities during power outages
The Lowell Sun
By Matt Murphy and Michael Norton
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Utilities would face a new assessment to help cover state storm response investigation costs and would be required to provide customers without power with twice-daily estimates of when electricity would be restored, under legislation that endorsed by two committees this week and marked for Senate debate on Thursday.
Under the bill, companies would pay a proportionate share of a $460,000 annual assessment that would be transferred into a Department of Public Utilities Storm Trust Fund. Utilities would not be allowed to pass assessment costs on to customers.
The legislation also calls for all penalties on utilities for storm response violations to be credited to customers based on electricity usage, requires utilities to set up an in-state call center and have sufficient staff to field calls during major storms, and mandates that utilities designate a community liaison in each community when implementing an emergency response plan.
"I think looking at the last round of storms here in Massachusetts, especially the October snowstorm and Irene, while we had much better procedures in place than some surrounding states there was still a lot more we needed to do to improve that process no matter how bad or unprecedented the storms were," said Sen. Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.
Downing's colleague, Sen. James Timilty, D-Walpole, co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee, called the bill a "great first step" towards holding utilities accountable for storm response. Timilty said municipal electric companies outperformed investor-owned utilities in the wake of last year's storms.
Timilty also dismissed claims by utility officials that the storm's were unusual. "They didn't do a good job and they weren't big storms," Timilty told the News Service after presiding over a session where Downing's bill was introduced. "People were golfing in my district 72 hours after the October storm."
While members of the Senate continue to work on legislation to address electricity costs and competition, the bill's emergence reflects one of the first major policy responses from the Legislature to public frustration with the most recent post-storm electricity restoration efforts by utilities.
The bill, S2440 received the unanimous endorsement of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee on Monday and emerged from Senate Ways and Means Tuesday with a 5 p.m. deadline for amendments set for Wednesday.
The Senate plans to debate the bill during a formal session on Thursday.
"It's not acceptable to have people without power for that length of time and the cost of the loss of that power was significant not just to the state and municipalities, but to people who lost food not knowing when there power was going to be turned on," Senate President Therese Murray told the News Service.
The Plymouth Democrat said that during Tropical Storm Irene she moved all the food from her refrigerator and freezer to a friend's house. Though she only lost power for a few days, she said, residents in places like Attleboro and Wrentham weren't as lucky and weren't given the information they needed to prepare.
Though winter has been unusually mild and dry this year, a late October snowstorm that caught clean-up crews off guard and the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene left hundreds of thousands of customers, many of whom lived in central and western Massachusetts, without power for days.
"It was pretty clear the status quo was unacceptable," Downing said, noting that communication from the utility companies was often insufficient.
"What we're trying to do is implement some of the lessons we've continued to learn from the past few storms. Communication continues to be a challenge both between the utilities and the state and utilities and affected customers and municipalities so people can know how long power is expected to be out so they can plan how to go about their daily lives," Downing said.
Downing said making sure customers don't pay through rate increases for the fines levied against utilities is a priority in the legislation. "You don't get to choose what utility serves you and you shouldn't be paying a premium for them not doing their jobs," he said.
Following a devastating ice storm in north central Massachusetts in 2008 that left some customers without power for over two weeks, lawmakers passed legislation requiring utilities to keep more detailed emergency response plans that account for worst-case scenarios.
The law signed by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2009 also stiffened penalties for utility companies who fail to file or follow their emergency response plans and empowered the Department of Public Utilities to intervene during a state of emergency.
Though Downing said that bill has been effective in making sure utilities do a better job preparing for storms, he said the latest legislative effort goes further to protect customers. Unitil, criticized after the 2008 ice storm, was actually credited with a solid response to storms last year.
In the wake of the storms that have generated criticism for poor response times to outages, the utilities have often cited a lack of manpower to cover the geographic territory covered by the storms. Though utilities often rely on crews for out of state for mutual assistance, when a storm like Irene hits the Northeast it can take time to bring crews from other regions.
"Perhaps they should have the manpower. Northeast Utilities that wants to merge with NStar had a horrific response in Connecticut, and if they're going to merge we need some oversight," Murray said.
"Beef it up because you can't tell me they're not making a profit," Murray added.
Asked if he felt lucky that the winter hadn't produced more storms that would have tested the utility companies' ability to adequately respond, Downing said, "Considering the issues we had with these storms, yes, absolutely."
Timilty said legislation aimed at enabling municipal electric companies to form as competitors to investor-owned utilities has been gathering momentum, but warned that is not a "panacea" and said he's heard from existing muni-electric companies that are concerned about new competition.
Timilty said starting a light company would costs tens of millions of dollars, money that's hard to find for cities and towns still struggling with recession-induced layoffs of teachers and firefighters. "It's not an easy thing to just embark upon," he said.
But Timilty suggested investor-owned utilities could learn something from their smaller counterparts. "They're about ratepayers whereas the big companies are about shareholders," he said.