Maine is the most forested state in the nation, and tree branches falling on local electric lines are the leading cause of power outages.

Those two facts are bumping up against public and political expectations of what it means to have reliable electric service in 2017, a month after a potent pre-Halloween rainstorm with powerful winds cut service to nearly a half-million Central Maine Power customers and left some in the dark for up to 10 days. It was the largest power outage in state history.

“You see that all around the United States,” said Sharon Reishus, a national energy consultant and former chairwoman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. “Puerto Rico aside, people are more sensitive now to outages than in the past. We’re so much more electrified, including relying on the internet.”

Reishus, who lives in Somerville and was without power for a week after a big oak tree fell across her driveway, said utilities across New England were under fire from residents and politicians for taking too long to get service restored.

“Everyone was struggling,” she said. “It was just a bigger storm than people expected.”

A recurring theme, Reishus said, were calls for more-aggressive tree trimming. What’s lost in the heat of the moment is that cutting costs money, she said, and some of the same people complaining about losing power don’t want the shade trees on their road denuded.

These opposing values will have to be reconciled in Maine over the next several months, as lawmakers, regulators and consumer advocates scrutinize the response by the state’s two largest power companies, Central Maine Power and Emera Maine.

As the dominant electric distribution company in Maine, CMP has the biggest target on its back.

Critics say someone has to be held accountable for the utility’s many failings in restoring power, keeping customers informed about restoration status and preventing future outages. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who co-chairs the legislative committee that handles utility matters, said the storm underscored the need for independent study of CMP’s preparedness. Issues bound to be scrutinized include inaccurate information on CMP’s Web-based outage tracker, the pros and cons of installing more coated “tree wire” that’s resistant to damage and the cost of moving vulnerable overhead lines underground.

“Whether it’s my committee or some other legislative entity,” Berry said, “there has to be some review of what happened, what didn’t work and how we can move forward, knowing there are more storms to come and we need to be better prepared for the next one.”

One review will come from the Office of Public Advocate. The agency says it will hire a private consultant to look at data that CMP will soon be submitting to the PUC, containing details of what it spent to get the lights back on.

The PUC will scrutinize the request, and could dispute some costs. But by law, customers will pick up most of the tab, which is expected to run into the tens of millions of dollars. That cost-sharing formula is bound to get a second look in the Legislature.

“People have come to expect that when they flip the switch, the power will come on and their lives will be normal,” said Barry Hobbins, the public advocate. “They’re justified in feeling frustrated.”

Hobbins has a letter, forwarded to him last week from Gov. Paul LePage, from a man in Brownfield who said the ordeal caused him both emotional and financial hardship. The man said he had been without power for six days, during which time he had to throw out food from his freezer and was unable to work at his home-based business. Then the man read about customers paying most of the restoration cost.

“Thousands of people are feeling frustrated by this whole process,” said Hobbins, whose Saco home was struck by an oak tree in his yard, causing $3,000 in damage.

FRUSTRATED CONSUMERS

Restoration time was actually much faster in October than after the historic ice storm of 1998. But the Halloween storm intensified quickly and caught many residents off guard. When hours without heat, light and an internet connection became days, the finger-pointing began.

The PUC’s consumer division also heard from frustrated customers.

About CMP: “It is an outrage that we experienced a 9-day power outage here in Harpswell. There are no valid excuses for CMP. They totally failed and they want us, the customers, to pay for their incompetence! Not unless they will reimburse customers for lost food, damaged pipes, etc. … CMP is a total disgrace and they are a monopoly so we have no choices. Please do something.”

About Emera: “I write to express my total dissatisfaction with the Emera Maine response to the current widespread power outage. On day two of this event, I’ve not yet seen one Emera truck working to make repairs. I traveled the areas where there is no power. There was no wind today, sunny skies, no ice or snow to contend with. And they knew the storm was coming. Based on their track record with past power outages, I am assuming that they have not yet even staffed up for this event. I experienced the ice storm of 1998 and was impressed at the high staffing that the Bangor Hydro had on their force to help us.”

John Carroll, a CMP spokesman, said judging CMP’s performance based on what the company has labeled a once-in-a-118-year storm, is arbitrary and wrong.

“As everyone saw,” Carroll said, “thousands of fully grown trees fell into the streets from outside of the right of way. To contend that more tree trimming or extra tree wire would have made a measurable difference in this event is at odds with the facts.”

Judy Long, an Emera spokeswoman, said the company is continuing to make investments in reliability and resiliency and began restoration as soon as it was safe to do so.

“We’re putting together a storm report now and evaluating our response,” she said.

JUDGING RELIABILITY

Major storms are linked to most outages, but power failures can be triggered anytime, by car accidents and equipment failure, for instance. That’s why regulators use reliability scores as an indicator of ongoing performance.

Reliability trends are tracked using industry metrics that measure duration and frequency of outages per the number of customers interrupted, plus a combined score. The metrics exclude major storms, to achieve a more-consistent baseline number year to year.

The fact is, CMP has made progress in reducing power outages over the past seven years.

The utility has gradually cut both the number of outages in its service area and the time it takes to restore power since 2010, largely by trimming tree branches that can fall on electric lines and by upgrading subpar circuits.

CMP’s data, reported to the PUC, show that the average number of times annually that a customer loses power has been cut from two in 2010 to 1.75 in 2016. The average duration of the outages has fallen from 1.97 hours in 2010 to 1.89 hours in 2016. Using an industry metric, CMP’s combined score of duration and frequency fell from 3.93 hours in 2010 to 3.31 in 2016.

The improvement reflects the fact the PUC has beefed up standards since 2008, and utilities can suffer financial penalties for failing to meet them. CMP has been hitting the goals, the PUC confirmed. Tree-related outages are down 30 percent compared to 2008.

And although it’s improving, CMP is still below the national average in terms of reliability, based on data from a 2017 federal energy study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Comparing utilities nationally can be tricky, because of differing ways information is collected. But the Lawrence Berkeley study calculated a national outage average of 1.2 times for investor-owned utilities and a combined score of 2.2 hours in 2015. So on those measures, CMP’s reliability performance falls below national averages.

While much of the criticism has been directed at CMP, roughly 90,000 customers in eastern and northern Maine served by Emera Maine also lost power. It took eight days to get everyone back on line.

Emera Maine has a worse track record on outages than CMP, the latest reliability report shows. Prodded by the PUC, Emera now is playing catch-up after ignoring some maintenance issues and having its return on equity reduced slightly until it met new performance standards. It’s working to reduce the frequencies and duration of outages.

“We’re aware that reliability is a concern and we’re making sure we’re using the best practices,” Long said.

Tree trimming critical

One strategy under review for Emera is more-frequent tree trimming.

The PUC has pushed more-aggressive trimming since 2008. That’s when it began requiring CMP to prune 20 percent of its 11,000-square-mile service territory every year. This so-called five-year trim cycle reflects the calculation that half of all outages and three-quarters of all time off line in CMP’s service area are linked to trees.

CMP’s tree program costs roughly $25 million a year, and translates into an additional $2 a month on a typical home electric bill. The PUC reviewed the program in 2013, and decided that the five-year cycle was reducing outages and struck the right balance between cost to ratepayers and reliability.

That seems to be where Emera Maine is heading, too, moving from a six-year to a five-year trim cycle. Emera currently spends $5 million a year on tree trimming, according to Long, which works out to $2.50 a month for a typical customer.

But the benefits of trimming has a big limiting factor – residents typically don’t want their roads clear-cut.

CMP currently prunes limbs in its right-of-way out to 8 feet from each side of power lines and 15 feet overhead, restrictions imposed by state law. It also invites residents to be placed on a list of customers who want to be consulted before pruning is done next to their property.

CMP doesn’t perform “ground to sky” clearing, which removes all vegetation underneath the lines and any overhanging canopy and can infringe on private property.

“Who is going to bear the political and public backlash?” Carroll asked. “If the Legislature thinks it can improve reliability by expanding our right to trim on private property, it can change the law.”

CMP also maintains that aggressive pruning wouldn’t have had a marked impact on the October storm’s impact, because the vast majority of trees that fell on power lines were located outside the trim zone.

Beyond that, some Maine communities limit pruning because they want to protect shade trees and neighborhood aesthetics. Portland, which has 16,000 street trees, is a case in point.

On Spring Street, katsura shade trees, native to Japan, are closer than 8 feet to wires. Residents like the way they look, according to Jeff Tarling, the city’s arborist. But when the power goes out, people complain.

“The same neighborhoods that have issues with power restoration would say we prune too much,” he said.

Tarling agreed with CMP’s assessment that the most damage in October was caused by mature trees that were uprooted, not by branches falling into power lines. He also said Portland is in the midst of finishing a citywide assessment of its trees for both safety and outage risks, and has identified roughly 200 trees that may need to be removed.

“We’re trying to get ahead of it, so that those trees don’t cause a future outage,” he said.

REPORTING AUTHORITIES

The utilities’ service areas are vast. CMP’s figures are averages across an 11,000-square-mile service area. Some rural communities with extreme weather or at-risk circuits, however, have far more interruptions.

The worst circuits are in western Maine, in the Dover-Foxcroft, Skowhegan and Farmington service areas. Customers around Dover-Foxcroft, for instance, averaged five interruptions in 2016. To improve reliability in these areas, CMP is doing extra tree trimming. Both CMP and Emera also are paying closer attention to what are known as “danger trees.” These are trees outside the trim zone, perhaps old or unhealthy, that seem especially at risk of falling on power lines.

Emera’s reliability data indicate that the utility didn’t make much progress in reducing the average duration or frequency of outages between 2012 and 2016. In three of the five years, the number of hours actually rose and are consistently worse than CMP’s metrics.

But Berry said he questions both the accuracy and adequacy of these reporting systems. The information should be independently verified, he said.

“I think the Legislature should review all policies that impact reliability and resilience and assure that CMP, as our for-profit electric monopoly, is focused on solutions that work for Maine people.”

Both the PUC and CMP are pushing back on Berry’s insinuations.

Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s spokesman, said commission staff verifies all utility information using its staff, data requests, testimony and consultant audits. It’s against the law to provide incomplete or inaccurate information, he added, and there are penalties for doing so.

Carroll pointed out that the reliability targets and annual improvement goals set by the commission date back many years.

“The idea that someone doesn’t ‘trust’ our figures is a serious concern,” he said. “We have a legal obligation to provide accurate, transparent information to the commission, and suggesting that isn’t the case is not a trivial point.”

Carroll also challenged critics to compare CMP’s storm response with other utilities. He noted it took Emera Maine nearly as long to fully restore power to 90,000 customers as it took CMP to do 470,000.

“Full service restoration started on Tuesday morning and by Saturday evening, after five days of effort, we had restored power to about 460,000 customers,” he said. “As a more reasonable measure of our performance, I think it’s fair to ask whether there are many other utilities that could have done the job as well and as safely as CMP under those conditions.”

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