December 18, 2017
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Maine officials prepare to take stock of power companies’ storm response

By Lori Valigra
Updated:

State legislators and assessors are evaluating how Maine’s electric utilities performed in restoring power during the historic October wind storm that darkened much of the state.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who co-chairs the Legislature’s committee that oversees energy and utilities, submitted a bill that aims to protect residences and businesses from rising electricity costs by improving how utility companies are managed. He submitted the bill, which is up for review Nov. 30 by the 10-member Legislative Council, in early September out of concern for rate rises and poor performance by utilities, he said.

Most of Maine’s electricity customers will pay higher rates next year, after the Maine Public Utilities Commission in November approved rate hikes for 2018.

“It addresses good management generally and would protect ratepayers from excessive costs whether incurred in storms or not,” he said, adding that utilities should focus on the reliability of their systems.

[Unusual ‘bomb cyclone’ blamed for widespread power outages]

Part of his concern is that Central Maine Power’s outage costs, due to be reported to the Public Utilities Commission within 30 days of the end of the storm, may total in the millions of dollars. Only $2 million of that bill would be footed by Central Maine, with the rest carried by ratepayers, he said.

Emera, which serves mostly northern Maine and the Bangor area, expects to file its storm recovery costs in January, spokeswoman Judy Long said. She said the company anticipates and is open to questions about its storm response.

“We are a public company and oversight is part of our business,” she said. “We’re making sure now that our costs from the storm are documented accurately in each of our service areas and with respect to transmission and distribution.”

She had no comment on Berry’s proposed bill as she had not read it.

Central Maine did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sen. David Woodsome, R-North Waterboro, who co-chairs the energy and utilities committee, said he isn’t sure legislation is the way to improve storm planning and response by Central Maine and Emera Maine.

“I was surprised at the outages. I didn’t think it would be as bad as it was,” he said. “CMP could do better. We all could do better. But I don’t know if legislation is the way to go with this issue.”

Woodsome said the committee plans to hold a meeting in early January with representatives from Central Maine, Emera Maine, the Public Utilities Commission and the public.

“CMP and Emera can share their stories with us on how they did and what they could have done better and how to avoid the situation again,” he said.

[Should Maine hold power companies more accountable for outages?]

In addition to the storm damage estimates, Central Maine and Emera Maine submit annual reliability reports, according to Harry Lanphear, director of administrative services at the Public Utilities Commission.

While the reports are from company information, Lanphear said in the past the commission has established standards to improve utility performance after storms. After the 1998 ice storm, which also caused extended, widespread outages, a five-year alternative rate plan allowed customers to choose other electricity suppliers.

“If CMP didn’t meet the [reliability] metrics, it would have incurred a penalty,” he said. When the plan ended in 2012, Central Maine had met the metrics.

New York state has taken utilities’ accountability to a higher level with a rating system it used for the first time this month, telling utilities they fell short on outage response to a March wind storm and may face millions of dollars in penalties.

Berry said state legislation likely would be required to adopt a similar plan in Maine, and while his bill doesn’t propose a rating system it it may tackle similar issues with storm response and preparedness.

Additionally, the Maine Emergency Management Agency is sending assessors around the state to determine storm damage for potential federal relief.

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Correction: This story has been updated to correct a mischaracterization about which companies benefit from electricity rate increases. Those rates are paid to electricity suppliers, not to Central Maine Power and Emera, which transmit and distribute electricity.


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