The state ordered a total of $24.8 million in penalties, all of which will be returned to the utilities’ customers Tuesday.
The Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan joined Department of Public Utilities (DPU) Chair Ann Berwick and DPU Commissioners to announce today's findings of DPU’s investigation into the electric utilities’ responses to Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm. The fines were the first ever levied by the state Department of Public Utilities against utilities for their storm responses.
National Grid faces the steepest penalty, at $18.725 million; NSTAR has been ordered to pay $4.075 million; and Western Massachusetts Electric Company to pay $2 million.
Framingham residents have NSTAR. At the height of Irene, about three out of every four homes in Framingham were without power. The day after the storm, then Town Manager Julian Suso declared that still half of Framingham was without power. School opened as normal despite 8,000 residents still without power, but buses couldn't make it down some streets and a couple of the schools opened operating on generators. Many homes didn't have power returned until more than 80-120 hours.
A couple of months later when the snowtober storm of 2011 hit, parts of Framingham were blanketed with a half foot of snow, downed tree limbs and downed wires. NSTAR reported about 10,000 customers without power in Wayland, Sudbury, Framingham, Weston and surrounding MetroWest towns.On Halloween, 13% of Framingham was still without power, there were many neighborhoods with downed trees and wires and lots of snow on the ground, but trick or treating went on as usual. Some residents were without heat and electricity for up to 5 days.
Recognizing that outages are inevitable in storms of this magnitude, the state department of public utilities concluded that all of the utilities failed in their public safety obligation when it came to responding to local public safety officials regarding downed wires.
“As the number of serious weather events has risen dramatically in Massachusetts, it’s crucial for ratepayers to have electric service that is both safe and reliable,” said Secretary Sullivan in a press release. “I am grateful to the Department of Public Utilities for its thorough investigation into these storm responses and we are hopeful that its findings, penalties, and directives will ensure improved preparedness and services during weather events in the future.”
With respect to NSTAR, nearly half of whose customers lost power during Tropical Storm Irene, the state found that in many important respects the company performed reasonably under the circumstances, including pre-storm preparations and post-storm damage assessment. However, the DPU decided that in many instances the company took far too long to respond to priority calls from public safety officials regarding downed wires and did a poor job of communicating with customers.
In the October snowstorm, many customers received phone calls from NSTAR announcing that their power had been restored, when in fact they were still in the dark. The DPU also ordered NSTAR to make certain improvements to its vegetation management program.
NSTAR issued a press release that it already intend to appeal the $4 million fine. The company would need to appeal the fine to the state's Supreme Judicial Court.
In the case of National Grid, the DPU found systematic failures in the company’s preparation for and response to both storms and ordered that National Grid undergo a comprehensive, third-party management audit of its capacity for responding to emergency events. Like the other companies, National Grid failed to effectively coordinate with the towns affected by the storms. Additionally, it left local public safety officials standing by downed wires for as long as several days, had a seriously inadequate response for priority facilities like nursing homes and sewage treatment plants, and secured too few crews, too late. The DPU also observed that it had warned and penalized National Grid for similar behaviors in the December 2010 snowstorm.
“The DPU understands that there will be many thousands of outages in bad storms like Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm. These will not be the last severe storms we see, and the public cannot expect that the utilities can prevent outages in events of this magnitude,” said Department of Public Utilities Chair Ann Berwick. “On the other hand, public safety will remain our absolutely highest priority, and we will not tolerate inadequate responses to local public safety officials. Additionally, in this day and age, we expect competent communications with towns and customers alike.”
The three utilities are required to submit their plans for penalty payment to the state within 30 days.