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Thank the people for improved Unitil

Sentinel & Enterprise

Gov. Deval Patrick might have thought utility companies were doing a good job restoring power to Massachusetts residents and businesses, but obviously he didn't have his ear to the ground.

If Patrick walked through parts of Leominster, Townsend, Lunenburg and Fitchburg, he'd have received an earful of frustration. More than 200,000 people remained without power in Massachusetts on Wednesday morning, four days after Saturday night's nor'easter.

On Monday, Patrick said he was pleased with the progress made by utility companies, but by Wednesday he finally expressed some impatience.

Our question is: Why is it taking so long? Utilities train their personnel to handle a storm crisis, right?

Remember Tropical Storm Irene in August and the great ice storm of 2008? Didn't the utilities learn from those outages and prepare for the worst?

If one utility has learned the most from past storms, it's Unitil Corp., which serves Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend and Ashby, as well as a handful of customers in Leominster and Shirley.

At 9 a.m. Sunday, 23,749 of Unitil's 28,000 customers in Massachusetts were without power. By 10 p.m. Tuesday, the utility reported that 99 percent of its customers had their lights back on. Compare that to National Grid, which on Tuesday night still had more than 11,000 customers without power in North Central Massachusetts, including nearly 7,000 in Leominster.

But let's be clear: Unitil has changed because the people rose up in great numbers to decry its response to the December 2008 ice storm, when every Unitil customer in the area lost power and some waited two weeks until it was restored. Credit Unitil's customers -- who were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore -- for pushing lawmakers to enact legislation giving the state Department of Public Utilities greater powers to ensure that investor-owned utilities were doing all they could during emergencies -- including placing the utility into temporary receivership if necessary.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said Monday she is monitoring power companies' restoration efforts after numerous cities and towns complained about a lack of communication and preparation for the unprecedented October nor'easter. On both counts, we believe Unitil has vastly improved -- again, thanks to the people.

If Coakley's office would get a map of the state's problem areas from the 2008 ice storm and overlay it with a map of the affected areas from Saturday, what do you think she'd find? We can only venture a guess, but we believe the same trouble areas will show up. Is that the way it should be? Are utilities sending fatter profits back to their investors instead of upgrading infrastructure and trimming trees around power lines?

It's interesting that small, municipally owned power companies -- such as Ashburnham Municipal Light -- were able to restore power to customers quicker than the larger companies. Why?

Stan Herriott told us Ashburnham has "robust" infrastructure that sustains a lot of weight from the snow, along with an aggressive tree-trimming program. The municipally owned utility also knows its territory like the back of its hand.

Are the larger utility companies doing the same in the communities they serve? Or are they too big to succeed?

Hundreds of small businesses have lost thousands of dollars in sales over the past few powerless days. Add on the lost wages for workers, and the total cost will likely hit the hundreds of millions of dollars -- if not billions -- across the state.

As for the utility companies, they'll probably be seeking a rate increase to offset cleanup costs. If they do, DPU should keep in mind that Unitil customers already pay the highest electricity rates in the state.

Patrick may be happy, but there's a lot to be concerned about in the performance of the utilities, especially National Grid. Hopefully, Attorney General Martha Coakley has her ear to the ground and will investigate.