The Maine Public Utilities Commission voted Tuesday to open an inquiry into responses by the state’s electric companies in restoring power after October’s destructive storm.

It asked Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine to file reports detailing their responses and lessons learned in 30 days. It also said it wanted to know how electric utilities and regulated phone companies worked together after the storm and whether changes need to be made.

The potent pre-Halloween wind and rainstorm cut service to more than 400,000 CMP customers and left some in the dark for up to 10 days. In eastern and northern Maine, roughly 90,000 customers served by Emera Maine also lost power. It took eight days to get everyone back on line.

Taken together, it was the largest power outage in state history.

The 30-day deadline – a tight time frame for data gathering, especially during the holiday season – was a signal that regulators see the issue as a priority, said Barry Hobbins, the state’s public advocate.

“I think the message is clear,” Hobbins said. “The PUC is going to put the utilities through their paces with a thorough review.”

The PUC’s inquiry will complement reviews set to be undertaken by the Office of Public Advocate and the Maine Legislature.

Hobbins said his office is close to engaging Sage Management Consultants LLC, a nationally recognized firm on utility industry issues. The consultants have worked on storm-cost recovery cases in southern New England, he said.

The Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee also is planning to look into response and prevention questions after it convenes in the new year. Hobbins, a former legislator and co-chair of the committee, said that having the power companies’ responses to the PUC in hand by mid-January will give lawmakers a set of facts with which to start their work.

‘THIS IS A WAKE-UP CALL’

In the storm’s wake, frustrated residents and critical politicians are calling for someone to be held accountable for what they see as utility failings in quickly restoring power and keeping customers informed about restoration status. This reaction is common across New England, as the intensity of the storm and the damage it caused caught many residents and responders less than fully prepared.

CMP recently revealed that the storm took down its smart-meter network for a time, degrading its ability to recognize what was happening on the system.

There also are calls in Maine – the most forested state in the nation and a place where tree branches falling on local electric lines are the leading cause of lost power – for more action to prevent future outages.

Hobbins expects the pending reviews to balance the desire for accountability with insights into how to be better prepared.

“It’s good to look in the rear-view mirror and have an opportunity to see mistakes that were made,” he said. “Just as the (1998) ice storm was a wake-up call, this is a wake-up call. Systems failed and remediation is needed, to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

UTILITIES SAY THEY DID THEIR BEST

For their parts, the power companies have said there are lessons to be learned, but that they restored power as soon as they could safely do it. They have noted that, with thousands of trees down and hundreds of snapped utility poles, the intensity of the storm defied predictions.

After Tuesday’s action at the PUC, Emera Maine said it’s not uncommon for regulators, lawmakers and officials to conduct reviews of the largest events to ensure things were done properly, and that the company was looking forward to collaborating. It also referenced predictions from climate scientists that storms will become more severe and frequent in a warming world.

“As the frequency of severe weather has increased, utilities have gotten better at responding to major events,” said Judy Long, an Emera Maine spokeswoman. “Not only does Emera Maine plan for storms and pre-stage crews to respond as appropriate, we also conduct post-event reviews to identify any lessons learned.”

CMP noted that investigations were conducted after storms that included those in 1998, 2002 and 2009.

AWAITING RECOVERY COST ESTIMATES

Gail Rice, a CMP spokeswoman, repeated that the October storm caused more outages than any other in CMP history.

“We feel the commission is best equipped to conduct such a review in an open and transparent process,” she said.

Also pending at the PUC is an estimate of what Maine’s two largest power companies spent on restoration.

The PUC will scrutinize the requests, 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.

CMP said it expects to submit its information this week, or possibly next week. Emera Maine said its cost estimates will be presented in January.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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