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Report: Maine utilities responded 'reasonably' to storm but not smart meters


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Report: Maine utilities responded 'reasonably' to storm but not smart meters

Maine regulators released a staff report Aug. 3 that concluded utilities Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine responded "reasonably" to a rain and windstorm that caused the worst blackout in the state's history but faulted the companies for failing to keep customers informed about power outages and restoration efforts.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission staff report found that Avangrid Inc. subsidiary CMP and Emera Inc.'s Maine subsidiary were ready for the storm and recovery efforts, including taking steps to monitor weather forecasts and calling up additional repair crews in and outside of Maine.

The storm, which landed Oct. 29-30, 2017, disrupted electricity for approximately 467,000 CMP customers and 90,000 Emera Maine customers. By midday Nov. 1, 2017, CMP and Emera had restored power to roughly half the affected customers. However, a small number of customers were without power for more than a week, which prompted the PUC to launch an investigation.

To the frustration of customers, the staff report said the outage and restoration time information the CMP and Emera Maine systems provided was not always accurate. For CMP, the culprit was its outage management system's predictive algorithm, which uses customer-reported outage information and smart meters — known as advanced metering infrastructure, or AMI — which failed to perform well when a significant part of the system was without power.

While CMP is considering hardening its AMI system to better withstand future severe storms, the report said, "[I]t is not clear ... how and whether in fact hardening the AMI system will improve either the outage information or restoration information results."

Many customers also complained that CMP's phone and online outage reporting systems gave inaccurate or inconsistent restoration time estimates and information in the storm's wake. The staff report said each utility should file by Dec. 1 a "specific plan to improve the accuracy of its outage and restoration reporting and customer accessibility to such information."

The report did not address a recent deluge of customer complaints of CMP's billing system, which is under a separate investigation by the PUC.

CMP President and CEO Doug Herling defended the AMI systems in a press release issued two days before the report's release. He said that during the height of the October 2017 storm, the smart meters provided "excellent data on the scope of damage" and restoration efforts more efficiently as repairs progressed. He reported that CMP has since taken several steps to make AMI systems more resilient during power outages.

CMP spokesperson Gail Rice said in a statement that the company has taken other steps as well, including wiring key AMI network communications for backup generators, increasing the number of mobile generators available for extended use during outages, enhancing CMP's ability to perform minor repairs to smart meters during a storm, and conducting a feasibility study over using an alternate communications solution during extended telecommunications outages.

CMP said it continues to regularly meet with county and state agencies to improve coordination of storm responses and has agreed to place an employee in the Maine Emergency Management Agency's Emergency Operations Center during storms. In addition, CMP will launch a pilot program using solar energy and extended battery backup as an alternative to traditional backup generators by the end of 2018.

Emera Maine spokesperson Judy Long said in a statement that Emera is still examining the PUC report but "as the frequency of severe weather has increased, Emera Maine has improved its storm planning process to safely restore service as quickly as possible while responsibly managing costs."