The ice storm that left thousands of Central Maine Power Co. customers without electricity this week — some for up to four days, including Christmas — could have been much worse, a company official said Friday.
And with a predicted nor’easter bearing down on the region later this weekend, year-long prevention plans by the state’s largest utility could pay off once again, according to CMP.
“It’s tough just coming off of an outage with 123,000 customers who lost power — it’s tough to say it, but conditions could have been much worse but for a lot of work that we do to maintain the lines over the course of the year,” CMP spokesman John Carroll said Friday.
At the peak of the power outages this past week, CMP coordinated its own crews as well as utility and tree crews from all over the Northeast. On Christmas Day, 1,800 people worked to clear trees and restore power, Carroll said. Of the 455 two-man line crews, 85 of the crews were CMP employees — the rest were contracted to do the work. There also were 330 two-man tree crews working, also coordinated by a CMP command center, Carroll said.
The company said it hoped to have service restored to all accessible buildings and year-round customers by late Friday night.
Carroll said one of the biggest challenges of the massive cleanup during and after an ice storm is housing and feeding all the workers.
“We get them all hotel rooms — we have a standing agreement with all the area hotels — and we get them food,” he said. “Our goal is to either keep them resting or working. We don’t want them driving around, lingering in restaurants, trying to find gas, getting lost.”
Carroll said crews work 17 hours, then rest for seven hours, with select crews working overnight. He said CMP also contracts with trucking and fuel companies to fill up all the trucks parked overnight in hotel parking lots to save time and efficiency. At one point during the storm there were 900 bucket trucks in use, Carroll said.
There also are mobile command units dispatched to remote locations along the CMP service lines with trailers holding materials and work orders needed to continue working, he said.
Carroll said company officials are hoping for warmer temperatures today to melt the ice from tree branches before the next round of winter weather — a predicted nor’easter — Sunday night into Monday.
“What’s unusual about this ice storm is that the ice is really hanging on,” he said. “The prospect of bad weather is more alarming just because the system is so vulnerable with all the trees and all the ice and snow on them. We hope for a warm up to have some of the ice drop off.”
Meteorologist Chris Kimble at the National Weather Service forecast office in Gray said temperatures began rising to near freezing Friday, melting some, but not all of the ice that had built up during the week. The weather service, which records data from Augusta, calculates that temperatures have not been above freezing since Dec. 7 — except for Dec. 20, when it was 34 degrees.
The forecast for today is mostly sunny, with a high near 36.
“With some sun, that’s going to help out as well,” Kimble said. “I would think there would at least be some melting and as the ice melts, I think the trees will be able to start snapping back to their normal form. Here at the office I could hear the trees snapping back with the ice cracking off of them.”
Kimble said Sunday’s snow could be moderate to heavy at times, meaning anywhere from 4 inches to more than 6 inches by the time it winds down early Monday.
“It’s going to be a quick-moving storm,” Kimble said. “It’s moving off the coast and it looks like it’s in a good spot to bring some snow to Maine and New Hampshire. It should be done by daybreak Monday morning.”
Carroll said 2013 was the fifth year of a five-year cycle of CMP trimming trees and branches — even moving power lines to more accessible locations — over the utility’s entire 23,250 miles of service line in Maine.
CMP entered into an agreement with the Public Utilities Commission to do the work in 2008, he said. Each year, line crews trimmed one-fifth of the system, clearing trees and branches from areas that, in the event of an ice storm, could snap and fall and take out the power lines, Carroll said.
Power lines also are moved from what they call cross-country spans to road-side spans, again keeping transmission lines away from trees for better clearance and giving power company crews easier access to repair the lines when necessary.
“With a cross-country line, when we have an outage, crews have to go in on snowshoes or snowmobile and climb the poles with hooks as opposed to using a bucket truck,” Carroll said. “Not only are those lines more prone to outage, but they’re more difficult to repair when you do have a problem.”
Carroll said in the course of the five-year cycle, power company crews trim one year and follow up with a visual inspection of every pole and all of the equipment on it. During the inspections, CMP workers catalog problems or potential future problems for work and a repair plan the following years, he said.
“We really are upgrading the viability in two ways — one we are making the lines safer from tree contacts, and also improving the condition of the asset itself,” Carroll said. “Another advantage of it is if you do have a storm, the crews can actually make repairs faster because if everything is properly trimmed, then the lines aren’t tangled or lost in a pile of branches; you can restring the wire and move on.”