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Eldridge hosts hearing on National Grid's storm response

Nashoba Publishing

Part One

By Dina Samfield, Correspondent

AYER -- The public was invited to a "storm forum" hosted by state Sen. Jamie Eldridge to share concerns and perspectives about National Grid's response to Tropical Storm Irene and the Oct. 29 snowstorm.

Only three nonofficial citizens showed up, but each had much to contribute.

The forum focused on the utility company's preparedness for and response to the recent storms. Topics included potential legislation to prevent similar situations in the future, and proactive solutions to future storms of this scope and severity.

Present to address the public's concerns about the utility's response to the storms were National Grid Director of Electric Operations Ken Lomax, Manager of Community Customer Management Trina Dumbroski, and Vice President for Government Affairs in Massachusetts Joseph Newman.

Also present were Rep. Jen Benson (37th Middlesex District), Rep. Sheila Harrington (1st Middlesex District), and Sen. Jennifer Flanagan's District Director Carly Antonellis (Worcester and Middlesex Counties).

Proposed Legislation

Sen. Eldridge, who serves Worcester and Middlesex Counties, is a sitting member of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, which has three utility and energy bills currently in committee.

The latest bill, S.2087, titled "An Act Relative to Emergency Service Response of Public Utility Companies," would subject all investor owned electric distribution, transmission or natural gas distribution companies to receivership by petition of the Attorney General during emergencies. It also expands the requirements in an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) with regard to customer communications.

H.3829, "An Act to Provide Power Outage Rebates to Consumers," and H.869, "An Act Relative to the Establishment of Municipal Lighting Authorities," were drafted prior to the storms.

H.3829 prohibits electric companies from charging ratepayers the costs of two days of electric services for every one day a ratepayer is without electric service, provided the disruption of service is not the fault of the ratepayer.

The basis for H.869 is that Municipal Lighting Authorities (Munis) generally offer better reliability and more favorable rates than investor-owned utilities ("IOUs"). However, due to outdated legislation that makes the process impractical, no new Muni has been formed in Massachusetts since 1926.

Bill H.869 explicitly states that once the fair value of the IOU's infrastructure has been established, the IOU would be required to sell to the municipality if the city or town makes such a request.

The proposed bill also revises outdated or unclear timelines for action by the various parties, requires an economic review of the proposed municipality by the Dept. of Public Utilities (DPU), allows customers of new municipalities to choose their competitive power supplier, and transfers the franchise from the IOU to the new municipality after the municipality has purchased the IOU's assets.

H.869 also requires new municipalities to collect the same energy efficiency and renewable charges as IOUs per the Green Communities Act of 2008 and other state policies.

If the bills are favorably reported out of committee, then each chamber of the legislature will vote on them, with or without amendments.

National Grid Action Items

"We want to find out what worked and what didn't work and look at legislative changes," said Eldridge at the outset of the meeting. "We just started the legislative session on Tuesday, and part of our agenda for the session in response to the storm would be looking at putting in a better emergency response plan for utility companies in anticipation of storms like this, and the committee is very involved in this."

He added that his general sense is that "something will happen before the end of the session."

Newman said that the double-whammy of the late August Hurricane Irene, followed 90 days later by a major fall snowstorm, had a severe impact on National Grid's operations. "We lost 420,000 customers in the first storm and approximately 500,000 in the second storm," he said.

"In both incidences we filed an after-storm report within 30 days, and we were in the process of implementing action items after Irene, but the second storm took everybody by surprise and as a result of that it triggered another report to the DPU."

"The DPU has set up two different investigations into all companies after the storm," he said. "They called in the utility companies to prepare and implement some action items and file comments on what we would be doing, and we did comply with filing by Dec. 20. Included in that is work that was already underway after the June tornadoes and the mid-June microburst."

Lomax, in addressing those action items, said that National Grid has looked through their emergency response plan (ERP) on file with the DPU with regard to customer satisfaction and improvements that could be made.

He said that it can be difficult to free up mutual aid from neighboring utilities during a widespread storm, and that the utility is working with the Edison Electric Institute, the association of share-holder owned utility companies, to look at the process of mutual aid and determine if there are best practices in other areas to deal with trading resources.

Blocked Roads and Downed Power Lines

With regard to public safety and the communications issue with municipal officials and FEMA authorities, the utility is now purchasing 1,000 additional units of GPS tracking to better track all of its crews and better identify and respond to public safety issues, estimated times of arrival (ETA) with regard to downed wires, and related issues.

Lomax also said that National Grid now has a new classification system for public safety and "wires down" issues. For example, a blocked road is now classified as a "priority one" (immediate response).

The DPU requires certain metrics in response to priority one issues, and the DPU can now better track if the utility met the ETA provided, he said.

The utility is also working on better partnering with individuals in each town, and training more "cut and clear" crews that can work on lower voltage wires that provide electricity (240v) directly to homes, according to Lomax.

He said that the utility is in the process of working on increasing the number of qualified line workers, addressing the mutual aid issue, and securing a number of private contractor resources to help with higher voltage power lines.

National Grid is also working on adding more personnel such as gas crews who can identify the lines that are down.

"Recent statistics show 65% of wires down belong to other companies--cable wires, TV wires, and telephone wires. So we need to come in and identify if there is a hazard," Lomax said.

A wire identified as a hazard must be guarded and prioritized in terms of service, he said. "One of the challenges that we have is that in some cases we have to determine what kind of wire it is, and let's say it is day one and we have come out and look at it and someone comes home and sees that wire down and calls it in again. We will come out and look at that wire again, because we don't know if it is the same wire or not," Lomax said.

Next Week: The Human Side