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November 26. 2012 6:53PM

Public Service reacts to negative marks over October 2011 snowstorm

Public Service of New Hampshire is preparing a detailed response to the Public Utilities Commission analysis of the 2011 October snowstorm, and has already adopted some of the PUC recommendations, according to a company spokesman.

In a 60-page analysis released on Nov. 21, the PUC praised the much smaller Unitil Energy Systems for the way it lined up outside help before the storm, how it communicated to town officials and customers during the storm, and how quickly it restored power after the storm, while taking issue with PSNH performance on almost every count.

PSNH, a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, serves approximately 70 percent of the retail customers in New Hampshire, while UES, a subsidiary of Unitil Corp., serves approximately 11 percent, mostly in the Seacoast and Concord areas.

"It was a year in the making, so we're going to have to take some time to go through the comments," PSNH spokesman Martin Murray said of the report. "We will respond to the commission, and we will do it in a timely manner."

Murray said many of the recommendations in the report were implemented in the company's preparations for and response to Hurricane Sandy, when it hit almost a year later to the day.

The PUC report hammers PSNH for failing to line up outside help ahead of time, even though it was clear in October 2011 that a major snowstorm was on the way, with leaves still on the trees, and enormous potential for power outages.

"PSNH has publicly stated that the company chooses not to pre-stage crews because it could suffer financial harm if a weather event does not materialize as predicted," the PUC report states. "Such an approach severely hampers the company's ability to secure outside crews ... Early requests for mutual assistance are critical to having additional resources arrive as quickly as possible and in sufficient quantities."

Murray said the aversion to pre-staging cited in the report is out of date. "We did pre-stage crews for this latest storm," he said. "For Sandy, we had a number of contracts in place. We had more than 80 line crews from out of state, as far away as Texas, that were on the ground before the storm, and we had outstanding requests for hundreds more."

He said the company's position has evolved "as a result of the very significant and unusual events that we've had since 2008."

The December 2008 ice storm was the worst in state history for power outages, with 432,000 customers out of power. The February 2010 wind storm was second, with 328,000 outages, followed by the October 2011 snowstorm that knocked out power to more than 300,000.

More than 200,000 New Hampshire electricity customers lost power during Hurricane Sandy.

"We've had several historic storms in the years between 2008 and now," Murray said. "There is more and more competition for outside crews, so there is more pressure and desire to obtain outside crews even before utilities actually experience damage. That's kind of evolved over the last several years as a result of the very significant and unusual events that we've had."

Due largely to its delay in getting outside help, PSNH did not begin to reduce its outages in 2011 until hours later than the other three companies - UES, Granite State Electric and the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, the PUC report states.

It also takes issue with PSNH's lack of communication with municipal officials and the public at large, writing that the company "failed to provide information sufficient to permit officials and customers to properly plan, based on the anticipated length of the power outages."

Murray said PSNH has tried to improve communication through community liaisons.

"We already had this in place, but what we found was that because of the increased nature of these storms and the widespread reach geographically, we have increased the number of liaisons and reduced the number of towns each is responsible for. We had a dozen in the latest storm, with each assigned to several communities."

The PUC report challenged PSNH on the fact that other utility companies were able to provide estimated return to service times, while PSNH could not, demanding that "PSNH shall develop a meaningful (return to service) protocol, such as that used by Unitil, that provides real information at the start, rather than at the conclusion, of the restoration phase."

"That's something we all have to try to get better at," Murray said. "When we have estimates, we provide them. The challenge is to develop them even faster than we are today, and that's a real challenge. The worst thing we can possibly do is give people a wrong answer and get their hopes up."

dsolomon@unionleader.com



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