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November 2, 2011

Power companies failed to deliver - again

Judging from the calls and comments we've received, there's a lot of anger out there at the electric utilities that serve our region.

People understand that heavy, wet snow may take down some trees and knock out power for a while. They just don't expect to be without electricity for days on end, particularly when only a few inches of snow fell locally.

The dissatisfaction with utility company performance is justified, though not all of the problems seem to be tied to the storm. Underground lines have become the norm in some parts of the country, but not here. Likewise, the handful of towns in this area that have independent electrical light companies, like Georgetown and Groveland, report having electricity restored at a far faster rate than the big utilities — and they say they charge customers less for electricity.

This is the third major storm in recent years that has resulted in multi-day power outages — the 2008 ice storm, the 2010 March wind storm and now the Halloween nor'easter. It is understandable that regional weather events like these knock out electrical transmission lines. But it seems that lately the ability of utilities — National Grid, Unitil, Public Service of New Hampshire and New Hampshire Electric Co-op — to restore power promptly has degraded.

Utilities have fallen under sharp official criticism for their lagging performance. At a hearing last week convened by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, state Attorney General Martha Coakley delivered a stern message.

"Failure to have and execute emergency response and restoration plans not only affects customers, but also our local first responders who at best face unnecessary costs and at worst are exposed to dangerous conditions," Coakley said in her statement. "Customers and our cities and towns deserve better, and the department should strive to ensure a regulatory environment where these failures are eliminated where possible and ensure that we are not back before the department after the next storm."

To their credit, municipalities have been reporting that utilities have been providing information promptly and accurately. But there must be more to utilities' storm response than good intentions. Getting the power back on is important, too.

It appears there will be another round of hearings and inquiries into the companies' handling of the outages. U.S. Sen Scott Brown has already made it clear that he wants the companies to answer specific questions.

We hope that lawmakers will go beyond the usual desk thumping and will begin to ask consumer-related questions, such as probing whether municipal light companies are a viable solution.

There was ample time to prepare for this early-season storm. Forecasters were warning all last week that the combination of heavy, wet snow and trees still in full leaf would wreak havoc with power lines. But utilities seem too willing merely to let their customers wait in the dark and cold. We expect better than that.