Wind storm highlighted weaknesses in Maine electrical grid. Who will fix them?

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
A motorist drives under downed pine trees that are resting on power lines in Freeport, Maine, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. A strong wind storm has caused widespread power outages.
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The task is less about assigning blame than about making needed improvements to minimize outages in the future.
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Mainers understand that power outages happen. High winds knock trees across power lines. Ice buildup can bring down transmission lines. Even an errant squirrel, or driver, can plunge a community or neighborhood into darkness.

But, the long-lasting power outage that began on Oct. 30 left utility customers, town officials, state lawmakers and others with a lot of questions.

Why, for example, were there so many outages and why did they last so long, especially in the state’s largest communities? Were the state’s two major utility companies, Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine, prepared for the storm and its consequences? Was their response well coordinated or haphazard and inconsistent?

Answering such questions is important to knowing what went right and what went wrong during and after the fall wind and rain storm. More important, understanding what happened — and making changes if needed — are critical for the future, as we know that storms will become more powerful as climate change accelerates.

Both the Public Utilities Commission and Maine Legislature plan to review the storm’s impacts and costs. The PUC, as part of its routine regulatory process, will determine how much of the repair and restoration costs are passed on to the utilities’ ratepayers.

CMP and Emera must submit data annually to state regulators on storm outages and response. The PUC is considering upping accountability measures in light of the recent widespread outages.

CMP, which has many more customers than Emera, had a high of 470,000 customers without power, while Emera had about 89,000 without service at its height. The outages closed business and schools for days.

As part of these reviews, utility customers, lawmakers and others must be prepared for some answers they won’t like. As one example, utility regulation, and incentives, have changed over recent decades. Until the early 2000s, utilities were locally owned and they made money by providing reliable electrical service to their customers. There was an incentive to have a lot of staff on the payroll.

Over time, new rate structures, both in Maine and through the New England power grid, encouraged these utilities to shrink their staffs and to invest in energy transmission — carrying power over long distances — rather than the distribution of power to local customers.

At the local level, the best way to avoid power outages it so cut all trees near power lines or to bury those lines. Both are very expensive and the cost would be borne by customers, who likely don’t want to see large rate increases to pay for this work.

As another example, when there are widespread power outages, utilities companies need hundreds of crews to restore power. However, it makes no sense to have those crews on the payroll year round when they may only be needed for a few days or weeks. As a result, utility companies rely on their counterparts in other states and provinces to provide the needed workers. It can take time for these crews to get to Maine, leaving frustrated customers without power.

CMP has been criticized because it invested $1.4 billion in a Maine Power Reliability Program to modernize and enhance transmission of its 40-year-old bulk power system in 2012. That program, and its smart grid system, appear to have done little to lessen the number of outages or to accurately track where power was out and when it would be restored.

Understanding what worked and what didn’t, and where regulators can apply pressure to ensure improvements, must be the focus the review work ahead. The task is less about assigning blame than about making needed improvements to minimize outages in the future.

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