Power priorities

Once again, Down East Maine’s electric utility, Emera Maine, appears to have been short of adequate resources when a strong nor’easter pummeled the state on Sunday, Nov. 2. At the high point, nearly 68,000 customers were without power. Some waited up to six days to get service restored. Such storms, or more accurately the disappointing delay in reacting to them, seem to be happening with increasing regularity.

Under the system Emera apparently uses to assign priority for power restoration, all customers, with the exceptions of hospitals, nursing homes, and public safety buildings or structures designated as shelters, are treated the same. Whether one person or six, or ten, live in a home serviced by one meter, one meter is just that, one meter.

An outage involving 100 meters will be fixed before the outage affecting just ten meters. It follows a defensible logic. But it is the luck of the draw.

A major case in point last week was Mount Desert Island High School, with just one meter. Power there was not restored until the facility had been closed for three days. The irony was that the line crew finally assigned to repair the circuit the high school is on had the electricity restored in just a few minutes. The problem was limited to a single connection on a pole alongside one of the busiest roads on MDI.

Had any supervisor or person familiar with the local electrical grid given the school higher priority and driven down to assess the problem, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have gotten it fixed more quickly.

Emera may want to consider adding criteria to its restoration decision process that take a facility’s impact on the community into account. On Emera’s computers, it may have been only one meter in a string of nine that were out. But the impact on the entire island community was much, much larger, altering the schedules and adversely affecting the lives of hundreds of students and staff, and thousands of family members. Even the school district’s home office was idled. From that perspective, it was more like an entire small town without electricity, not just one customer.

And the impact will live on, with additional disruptions. In the coming months, students will be forced to go to class on Saturdays or longer into the summer to make up for cancelled days. While the state could issue a waiver from the 180-day-school-year requirement, that is rarely done.

The practice of having utilities rely primarily on out-of-area repair crews to rush in after a major calamity may need to be reexamined. Section supervisors, with vital institutional memory of how the grid is laid out, seem an obvious need.

Some may suggest that the high school needs to purchase more robust generators. But backups are designed only to be used in an emergency, not as a long-term replacement for power from the grid. Upsizing to units that can handle the school’s entire load requirement would be prohibitively expensive and wasteful.

In the aftermath of the storm, no blame or ire should be directed towards line workers themselves, who have made extraordinary sacrifices and put themselves at considerable personal risk to get the power back on. But the growing trend of home and business owners purchasing and installing backup systems for electrical power is clear and expensive evidence of the distressing lack of confidence in the ability of Emera’s management to provide reliable service.

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