Mackenzie Rose Peacock was losing power at her Orono apartment so frequently and without warning that she had multiple contingency plans about where to get internet access to do school work or take a hot shower before class.
Peacock moved to southern Maine in January, but Old Town-Orono residents keep having outages and there’s no immediate solution in sight.
Residents and business owners say that frequent outages have been going on for at least a couple of years, and some think the situation is getting worse. It is difficult to pinpoint how widespread the problem is because the outages mostly occur in random spots, with the exception of the Bennoch Road area, which seems to have a concentration of them. The length of time varies too, with some households and businesses experiencing a momentary blip, while others can lose power for hours or days at a time.
The complications of schooling and working virtually during the coronavirus pandemic have been made worse by the frequent outages as well.
When the power goes out at Jen Fogel’s house in Old Town, it usually stays out. Luckily, she has a back-up generator that keeps things running. Fogel, who works in nursing informatics — which combines nursing science with information and analytical sciences to improve health care — for Eastern Maine Medical Center and Northern Light AR Gould in Presque Isle, still has to use a mobile hotspot so she can keep working when the power goes out.
She upgraded her cellphone plan at the start of the pandemic to get better hotspot coverage to fill in whenever the electricity is down. It’s hard to quantify exactly how often the power goes out, Fogel said. All she knows is that it’s a common issue in her neighborhood and has been happening way more than it ever used to.
Dan Finnemore has noticed that the power seems to blip out randomly at his business on Stillwater Avenue. Sometimes it comes right back on but other times — especially during wind or snowstorms — it’ll stay out longer.
Finnemore, who owns Box of Maine, said it was especially difficult when he first opened the shop in the fall of 2019, before he had a generator. Finnemore’s business, which creates custom, Maine-themed gift boxes, relies on the internet to process orders and electricity to power refrigerators to keep products good.
But that first year, the power went out for multiple days during a storm, and it sent him spiraling. “I was freaking out and I had to hook everything up and get things running and operational cause that would really set me behind.”
Power outages during bad weather are not uncommon. But the widespread outages occurring one after another on clear days in the Old Town-Orono area are not usual. Last August, a string of back-to-back crashes wiped out power for thousands of residents in less than one week.
In 2020, there were eight outages along an 11-mile transmission line that connects to the Orono electrical substation. Four of those were caused by outside factors such as car crashes. Another four were tree-related.
This is an abnormally high number of outages to happen on a transmission line, Judy Long, Versant Power’s communications and brand manager, said.
“We get that losing service is frustrating and confusing, particularly during the pandemic,” Long said. “Having reliable electrical service means more now than ever before.”
While Versant routinely surveys coverage areas around the state to improve service, it plans to give more attention to the Old Town-Orono region because of the increase in outages in the past year, she said
“In the longer term, we’re studying this entire area in light of the outages that we’ve seen and … we’re developing a multi-year system improvement plan,” Long said. The multi-year plan will identify issues in the area and how they can improve service reliability.
When crashes happen — such as cars hitting utility poles — Versant Power has to shut off service for the surrounding area to repair the problem, Long said. But it’s not always easy to figure out what is causing a power interruption.
To rectify that, Versant is installing equipment within the next year that will pinpoint where a fault is occurring on a line, which will help identify what is causing an outage and isolate the problem, according to Long.
The equipment is expected to help restore service faster.
The company is also proposing a battery storage pilot project in Old Town and Orono that could provide service to customers from an electrical substation battery during an outage. The project would be part of an effort to expand Maine’s energy storage systems.