Thursday, September 1, 2011

Requests for committee hearing on National Grid's and NSTAR's responses to Tropical Storm Irene

The first letter below is a request from Paul Adams and me for a hearing in front of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy of National Grid and NSTAR.

The second letter is my more detailed request for the committee to look into the need for legislation or beefed up regulations regarding minimum standards for customer service during a storm event and its aftermath.

Feel free to comment on your own situation after the storm.


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September 1, 2011

The Honorable John D. Keenan, House Chairman
Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy
State House, Room 473B
Boston, MA  02133

Dear Chairman Keenan:

As members of the Committee and on behalf of the House Republican Caucus, we write to engage your thoughts on having the Committee call on representatives from National Grid and NSTAR to appear at a public hearing to discuss public outcry from prolonged power outages that plagued Massachusetts in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.

As you know, on Sunday, August 28th, cities and towns across the Commonwealth were barraged with both severe winds reaching upwards of 80 mph and flooding rains as a result of Tropical Storm Irene. Subsequently, power outages were reported as far reaching as Berkshire and Barnstable Counties. At the height of the power outages, nearly 700,000 residents were without power around the Commonwealth. At the time of this letter being written, close to 65,000 households remain without electrical power. As members of the Committee and on behalf of the residents of Massachusetts, we feel this event reached such a critical point that we respectfully request the Committee to call on officials from both National Grid and NSTAR to appear before a public hearing to discuss how to better pursue preventative measures to ensure that a situation like this does not occur again.

The purpose of this public hearing would be threefold. First, we think it would be helpful for National Grid and NSTAR to discuss their current emergency response plans, and any improvements that can be made to such plans as a result of Tropical Storm Irene. Second, the public hearing could facilitate dialogue surrounding the failed communications between the electric companies and both customers and municipalities during, and in the wake of, the storm. Finally, it goes without saying the need to address residents’ reports of untimely response by National Grid and NSTAR to the widespread power outages would be imperative.

We appreciate and applaud the tireless work of the electrical workers that have labored day and night to get power back up and running to hundreds of thousands of households. Since we realize the Department of Public Utilities will most likely conduct similar hearings, we respectfully defer to your expertise as to the best way to proceed in conjunction with the Administration.

We appreciate your consideration of this request and would be happy to discuss it with you at your convenience. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

  
                                                           
Representative Paul Adams                                         Representative Randy Hunt
17th Essex District                                                       5th Barnstable District

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September 1, 2011

Benjamin Downing, Senate Chairman
John Keenan, House Chairman
Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy
Statehouse Room 413F
Boston, MA 02133

Re:       Substandard customer service by NSTAR in wake of Hurricane Irene and
            concerns about our electrical grid on Cape Cod

Honorable Chairmen:

Background

Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm before moving across Massachusetts, affected Cape Cod and the Islands on Sunday, August 28th. The height of the winds were felt from approximately 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with a maximum gust of 72 mph measured at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on Buzzards Bay. Sustained winds were between 40 and 50 mph. It was not a significant rain event for Cape Cod.

On Monday, August 29th, NSTAR’s recorded customer service message requested customers to call back on Tuesday. On Tuesday, NSTAR’s recorded message informed everyone from Cape Cod to expect repairs to be completed by Saturday, September 3rd at 10:00 p.m. or for a few areas by Sunday at 10:00 p.m.

A timeframe such as this is equivalent to no information at all. For someone without electricity, the difference between one day and four days is huge. If a person knew with certainty on Tuesday that power would not be restored until Saturday, that would constitute actionable information and might persuade that person to throw out their perishables, rent a motel room, or stay with family or a friend who has power.

NSTAR gave us no information on which a reasonable person could make a decision. On Monday, NSTAR reported that 162,000 customers across their systems had no electricity. On Tuesday, NSTAR reported that 84,000 customers remained without power. The fact was that none of our residents without power knew if they’d see electricity restored in 4 hours or 4 days.

Late Monday evening, NSTAR posted a chart at nstar.com of the number of customers by community, the number of customers without power, and the percentage of customers without power. This chart provided no perspective on when to expect restoration of power. On Tuesday, the chart was updated to reflect the number of customers by town with restored power and included the Saturday and Sunday dates for expected repairs in Cape Cod towns. Again, NSTAR’s communications lacked operable information.

Steps Forward

First, let me be clear that I am in no way criticizing the work of NSTAR’s repair crews or the people responsible for prioritizing the work and dispatching the crews. They appear to be doing the job of getting customers back up and running. My criticism is aimed at the lack of information provided to the public by NSTAR, leaving no one able to make critical decisions relative to handling their personal affairs, business interests, and the needs of relatives unable to manage through the downtime.

An effective and credible customer service function requires accurate and timely information. In the aftermath of a storm like this, a utility is faced with determining where the outages are and the causes for each of the outages. Then it must prioritize the blackout areas based on public safety, greatest number of customers restored per repair, etc. Furthermore, personnel, replacement equipment, and machinery availability has to be considered as well as timing of subcontractors (tree removal services, e.g.)

In a perfect world, the exact date and time of power restoration for each customer would allow flawless decision making. In the real world, each repair site has its nuances and necessary resources are not always available at the right time. Having said that, this is the nature of the beast and utilities do the best they can to juggle the moving parts in making decisions to prioritize the repairs.

Once decisions are made about where and when to send repair crews, the public has a right to know what the decisions are. As an example, if there are 500 repair work sites and fewer than 500 crews with the appropriate equipment, an ordering must be established by management. As a customer, to know that your blackout area is near the top of the list versus near the bottom of the list is important, actionable information.

As a minimum customer service standard, I propose the following:

1)      During any event involving the loss of a utility service, the utility company must provide information regarding where the areas without service are by municipality and commonly known names of areas within the municipalities. This can be made available using an online mapping tool, smart phone apps, reverse 9-1-1 systems, through the news media, the 2-1-1 system, or any other method that is widely used and accomplishes the goal of disseminating information effectively and efficiently.

2)      Accompanying or integrated into the above information must be a list by region in which coordinated repair crews are working to include repair projects that are completed and those that are pending, in the most likely order of dispatch. To the best of management’s knowledge, estimated completion dates for each repair project or group of related repair projects must be made available.

3)      The first posting of the above information must occur within 12 hours of dispatching the first repair crew and be updated no less frequently than every 12 hours until all repairs related to the event are complete. Real time posting of information is encouraged.

4)      An archived copy of these reports, or “snapshots” of real time data at intervals of no less than 12 hours, must be submitted to the Department of Public Utilities within 30 days of completion of the event reporting.

The above minimum standard of public reporting during disaster events could be codified in law or by DPU regulation. However it is decided, I would encourage the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy to take up the issue as soon as practicable. I will be happy to sponsor legislation to this effect if we agree that legislation is warranted.

Electrical Grid on Cape Cod

Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene has brought to light a situation that is potentially far reaching with respect to the electrical grid on Cape Cod. The storm was large but not particularly fierce on the Cape. Given that, the amount of power disruptions seem out of line with the severity of the weather event, which points to issues regarding the stalwartness of the electrical grid and what might happen if we experience a hurricane.

I suggest we, as a committee, gather additional information regarding expectations for damage from this storm versus what actually happened and invite some disaster planners from the state and private industry to assess our preparedness for future events.

Sincerely,


Randy Hunt, State Rep - 5th Barnstable District
Committee Member - TUE

4 comments:

  1. Randy- I applaud you for this, I have the same questions of Unitil, who serves my area in No.Ctrl MA. WHY can't there be a better format, i.e. mapping tool, to give a clearer indication of restoration so as to not leave people frustrated. Further the Committee should pass the muni choice bill once in for all. This legislation could improve service and rates for all investor owned utilities in MA.

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  2. Leave them/nstar & comcast alone. Points raised in both letters are quite appropiate but do not address their interests,which is strictly making money. If they were serious about customer service they would have long ago publish their service plans and strategies and made relative financial commitments to the public for non performance, e.g. rebate relatives to periods of outage by zip codes/actuals. I can think of several other practices they should adopt to not be so far behind the repair and restore curve. Their risk manager is asleep on the job. Their mission should at least be to meet or exceed the expectation of their customers, mother nature then become less of a foe. jd, s-sandwich

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  3. Carl Johansen would state that the responce to any storm needs to be addressed in a better manner then what is now being done by both companies.

    The main question that never seems to get addressed is why we seem to have so much damage in the first place ????

    Why are these companies not performing maintence on the lines to prevent this type of damage in the first place.

    Can any one imagine if this was the hurricane of 38[ I lived through that one] We here in Massachuseets would be more affected then that hurricane. So we need to ask why, is the damage so extensive??? What can be done to minimize further damage from a next one.

    Can these companies show the work they have or have not done over the past few years to establish better ways to construct lines of electrical power that with stand a set standard, that can be measured.

    If a better process is needed to remove potentional wind or water hazards that will disrupt service then it should be established now.

    If the equipment being used can not deal with surges of voltages when wet, they need to be reengineered. When one system can take out another, because of an overload, we need to find a way to prevent it.

    We will always have outages, but we do not need to have wide spread ones where it affects a whole community for many days.

    Back up lines cost money, but in the end that money is well spent upfront.

    Randy I would ask these companies what they have been doing since the last storm every one has seen, where we had similar results and plenty of promises, but no corrections to the situation at hand.

    In my opinion it goes more to maintenence a lack of and the will to put in place a more reliable power system.

    Just think what we would all be facing had this storm actually turned out to be a hurricane as was predicted.???

    Carl Johansen

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  4. Most problems come from a lack of communication or misunderstanding. This was a perfect example. I agree completely with your decision to call the utilities on the carpect, and to make them have a plan which lets people know their priorities, and time estimates for restoring power.

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