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Mass. Utilities Resist DPU's Storm Response Penalties

On Tuesday, Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rick Sullivan, Chair of the Department of Public Utilities Ann Berwick, and other officials, announced that their investigation to utilities’ response to Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snow storm warranted $24.8 million in penalties to be returned to ratepayers.

National Grid alone will has been penalized $18.7 million dollars for their response to both storms. The Department of Public Utilities said that it found “systematic failures” in the way National Grid handled preparations and it’s response. National Grid was also penalized by the DPU for response to a snowstorm in December 2010.

In response to a request for comment, National Grid said in a statement to WAMC via email, “We have not yet had an opportunity to fully review and evaluate the Department’s order. We will need some time to evaluate the order fully to consider our options going forward.”

However, Boston-based NStar and the Western Massachusetts Electric Co., have both claimed that they are seeking to appeal the DPU’s penalties. Both utilities are owned by Northeast Utilities, which is headquartered in Hartford, Connecticut. NStar was fined $4.1 million, while WMECo has been ordered to pay $2 million – WMECo is only being fined for their response to the October snowstorm.

Secretary Sullivan said that downed power lines and a breakdown of communication with municipalities warrant the penalties.

Following a request for comment, spokeswoman for WMECo Priscilla Ress said the company would say no more than what was already provided in a press release sent yesterday.

In the release, WMECo president Peter Clarke states, “We strongly disagree with the DPU’s finding and are disappointed they have chosen to take this path. We had hoped the department would follow the evidence showing our response properly addressed priorities created by the storm.”

WMECo said that it restored power to 83 percent of its customers within its first restoration time estimate with the help of enlisted contractors. Over the 200,000 customers it serves, WMECO said that 65 percent were affected by the October storm. They say they received 10,000 calls about downed wires.

Because of recent legislation, the $25 million in penalties must be paid by the utilities to the ratepayers. Secretary Sullivan stressed that the money would not go to the state. He also said that the utilities’ response to outages associated with Hurricane Sandy was much improved.

The utilities were given 30 days to produce a repayment plan. The DPU also announced that they would investigate modernizing the grid, a review of utility quality standards, investigate rulemaking for the management of trees, and the utilities’ response plans, as well as the Department’s own emergency response guidelines.

12-12-12 downing dpu.mp3
State Sen. Benjamin Downing, Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Telecom, Utilities, and Energy, discusses the fines imposed on the utilities.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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