Power Company Responses to October Storm May Raise Costs for Consumers

Jan 18, 2018

Central Maine Power Company estimates that the response and recovery from an October windstorm will cost more than $68 million. Short-term, company officials say they will seek to charge a portion of this cost - $27 million - to customers.

The company says that if the new charges were collected over a year, it would add about $1.30 per month to consumer bills. The company notes that while this will be higher, it's already collected a storm-recovery reserve from customers which is keeping the bill effect down.

In a telephone press conference the company's chief of regulatory affairs, Eric Stinneford, said the cost might be further offset by the cut in the corporate tax rate recently signed into law by President Trump.

"It is our expectation that the rate benefits of that tax legislation will be available to substantially offset these costs and in fact completely offset them,” said Stinneford.

These are just preliminary estimates, however, and regulators are expected to take months to make a final ruling. In addition, the company will seek to collect from customers the cost to replace poles and wires - lost or damaged in the storm. The company's director of electric operations, Kevin Elwell, says distribution lines were severely damaged.

"The storm was unprecedented in the number of customers affected - an estimated 467,000,” said Elwell. “And the extent of the damage across our service territory included thousands of mature trees from outside of the maintenance clearance zone were ... broken or uprooted and fell into our poles and lines. Damage was on nearly every distribution circuit, resulting in nearly 1400 broken poles."

In general, CMP officials say the company responded well to the historic storm. There were also some vulnerabilities exposed. Chief among them includes the need to make the smart-meter grid monitoring system more resilient against power losses. The system was severely impaired and led to inaccurate outage reporting on the company website.

There's also an issue of communication. Customers and others have filed complaints about the company's response with state regulators. Mark Russell, who chairs Litchfield's selectboard, says communications from CMP were poor during the storm. He says that because the company prioritized power restoration, downed but still electrified lines made some parts of town a no-go zone in the early days of the recovery.

"It is very dangerous and very concerning for anybody involved,” said Russell. “Do you send a public works crew in, thinking they might be in danger of being electrocuted, so that 20 people on the other sides of the trees could get an ambulance if they had to? That's a tough call."

He says CMP should make safety of those downed power lines a priority. CMP's Eric Stinneford had no immediate response to that idea, but he acknowledged communications need to be addressed.

"Our primary means of coordinating emergency issues such as that in a storm of this magnitude is through the county and state EMAs,” said Stinneford. “And I am not sure in the specific case of the town of Litchfield where communications may have broken down, but that is certainly something that we'll be investigating.

While state regulators review the company's filings and take public comment, some lawmakers are also weighing in. Representative Seth Berry, a Bowdoinham Democrat, has emerged as one of the utility's most outspoken critics. Under state rules he says shareholders will likely be limited to $2 million for their share of storm costs. He says CMP should be held accountable for the elimination of more than 140 meter-reader jobs in 2009.

“Those individuals would have gone out in the field and assessed the damage, mapped it out, so that line workers could have worked efficiently to take care of the problems,” said Berry. “The problem was not a shortage of line workers, but it was a lack of coordination.”

CMP says the layoff had no effect on storm recovery. Emera Maine, meanwhile, submitted its accounting of the storm response late in the day. It says it will seek to recover some $7.3 million from customers, costing about $2.50 a month on bills.