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Friday, February 6, 2009

National Grid details response to ice storm
It’s a far cry from Unitil’s


WORCESTER —  The 12 National Grid officials who attended last night’s Department of Public Utilities hearing outnumbered the residents who wanted to testify about how well the electric company handled the ice storm last month.

It was a far cry from the hundreds upon hundreds of residents who showed up to complain about Unitil at two recent state DPU hearings in Fitchburg and Lunenburg. While the Fitchburg hearing stretched over eight hours, last night’s in Worcester City Hall lasted less than one hour.

National Grid Senior Vice President Christopher E. Root said that more than 99 percent of the 294,000 customers who were without electricity the first morning of the storm, Dec. 12, had it back Dec. 19. By contrast a 78-year-old Fitchburg woman said that she had been without power for 14 days, contradicting Unitil’s assertion that all customers had their power back in 12 days.

Jed M. Nosal, chief of the attorney general’s energy and telecommunications division, called National Grid’s response “robust.”

Kathleen Samborski of 7 Hancock Hill Road, one of only three Worcester residents to testify last night, complimented National Grid, saying that wherever she went in the city she saw line crews working to restore power.

Virginia Kingsbury of 88 Randolph Road complained, however, that her calls to National Grid were shunted from office to office without getting satisfactory answers. She wanted to know why the company took time out to send a crew to her home to disconnect the temporary connection installed by an electrician she paid for.

Mr. Root said National Grid made extensive preparation once the ice storm was predicted, shifting crews from Rhode Island to Massachusetts and having three employees line up crews from contractors and other utilities across the country to swell its usual complement of line crews to 900. He said that 33 transmission lines were knocked out by the storm, shutting off electricity in 146 of its 169 communities.

Patrick R. Mehr, a member of the Lexington electric utility committee, raised questions about why the outages during the storm were so widespread. Mr. Mehr, who used to serve in the equivalent of the DPU in his native France, urged the DPU to examine the ordinary maintenance that investor-owned utilities put into their systems.

He said that seven municipal electric systems examined by his town’s electric utility committee have an average of one lineman per 2,500 customers compared to 1 for 7,000 customers used by NSTAR, which serves Lexington. The municipal systems manage to do that while charging their customers less, Mr. Mehr said.

He said the rates charged in 2008 by Unitil for 500 kilowatt hours is $105, with NSTAR charging $100, National Grid charging $87, and the municipal systems charging an average of $69. He said private companies pay exorbitant salaries — he listed five NSTAR officials paid from $1.3 million to $9.7 million in 2007 — and need to make a profit to pay to investors.