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GELD gets high marks for storm response

By Pierre Comtois, Correspondent

GROTON -- Weeks after one of the most devastating storms to hit New England left hundreds of thousands of homes without electric power for days, officials at the Groton Electric Light Department took time to evaluate the department's performance during the emergency.

"After being hit by two serious storm events over the last two years, this last one was the worst," summed up Electric Light Commission chairman Kevin Lindemer at the start of last Wednesday night's GELD meeting.

Lindemer referred to a freak snow storm that left anywhere from a few inches to a foot of heavy, damp snow over most of Massachusetts over the night of Oct. 29-30.

Everywhere, trees caught with most of their leaves unfallen, became overburdened under the weight of the snow and lost branches and limbs. Often, whole trees came crashing down tearing loose power lines, snapping telephone poles, and crushing transformers.

Groton, like many other communities across the state, suffered greatly with up to 85 percent of its homes without power by the evening of Oct. 30 with main culprits being downed tree limbs.

"Oaks were down literally everywhere," said GELD manager Kevin Kelly.

Kelly said that the trouble for Groton began on the evening of Oct. 29 when the department's automatic meter reading system registered 2,500 customers without power.

With three crews working non-stop for the first 24 hours of the storm, Kelly told commissioners last Wednesday night that 25 percent


of the department's customers had their power restored by the end of the day. After 8 hours of sleep, the crews were back at work and managed to restore power to another 20 percent after 16 hours.
By Oct. 31, Halloween, the total was down to 38 percent of customers without power.

The next day, the first reinforcements from out of town arrived from Mansfield and Rowley and later Concord and with the added help of some ex-employees doing non-electrical work resetting downed poles, total customers without power was reduced to 12 percent.

At last, areas remaining without power were spots that had suffered the most extensive damage from fallen trees. Most of those were cleared up by Nov. 2 with only 2 homes remaining on Prescott Street finally reconnected on Nov. 3, five days after the snowstorm struck.

Comparing GELD's performance during the emergency to other area towns, Kelly noted that by the time the last homes were reconnected in Groton, Dunstable still had 58 percent of its homes without power, Pepperell with 34 percent, Shirley with 21 percent, and Westford with 18 percent.

Kelly said that one of the reasons it took so long for departments to restore power not only in Groton but everywhere else was due to the fact that companies that they could usually rely on as reinforcements during an emergency were busy getting their own communities back on line.

Nevertheless, Kelly was dissatisfied with Groton's performance.

"We had way too many customers out for way too long," Kelly said adding that anything that can be learned from the experience that would improve the department's performance the next time was being looked at.

To that end, Kelly suggested more timely posting on the department's website of what areas had power restored and what others were remaining, increased redundancies in the electrical grid, and a stepped up tree trimming campaign bolstered by a doubling of GELD's $120,000 tree trimming budget.

"This storm would have been far worse if we didn't do any tree trimming," Kelly said.

Doris Chojnowski, GELD's former manager, and other residents present at last Wednesday night's meeting praised the department's communication with customers during the emergency but warned that not everyone would have access to the internet for current information if they were without power.

Chojnowski also cautioned against the department becoming too aggressive in any tree trimming campaign citing the town's concern for its scenic tree lined streets.

Kelly assured her that what he meant by being more aggressive was in doing more of the kind of trimming that the department was already doing.

The GELD manager however, ruled out removing power lines from telephone poles and placing them underground where they would be sheltered from falling branches.

"It's something that's very expensive," said Kelly saying for example that even the short distance between the town center and Champney Street would cost well over $1 million to bury the lines.

Other drawbacks included damage to buried lines by roots and water, the need for built in redundancies, and the hidden costs to homeowners who may have to upgrade the electrical systems in their houses at a cost of thousands of dollars.

In addition, continued Kelly, studies have shown that to repair an underground line would result in delays in restoring power of 56 percent longer than if the work had to be done along telephone poles.

But whatever time delay there was in restoring power to Groton homes, it was still preferable in many people's eyes to that of big power companies like National Grid that have come under much criticism as a result of their performance during the storm.

As a result, also attending GELD's meeting last Wednesday night were residents of Dunstable who, noting the department's record during the storm, wondered if their town could be added to the department's network.

Although not unfriendly to the idea, Kelly said that at the moment it was not up to GELD to entertain the question but state law which forbids expansion of private municipal electric companies outside their service areas.

However, Kelly said that the poor performance of the larger power suppliers during the storm has given impetus to a move in the state's legislature to allow expansion of municipal utilities and if that time came, GELD would be willing to consider adding Dunstable to its network providing it did no harm to its Groton customers.