Thursday August 9, 2012

The day after Governor Patrick signed into law a bill holding public utilities more accountable for their performances during power outages, Attorney General Martha Coakley recommended that the state fine NStar $9.7 million for allegedly failing to respond adequately to damage caused by two storms a year ago. In this global warming-era of weather extremes and severe storms, utilities must be prepared for what used to be unexpected and government must insist on that preparation.

The legislation requires the public utilities to establish an adequately staffed center during major storms and coordinate their emergency response plans with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. It also requires the utilities to pay an as yet unspecified charge to help finance storm investigations by the state Department of Public Utilities, and while the law says the charge cannot be passed onto consumers the enforcement mechanism for this measure is unclear.

NStar, which serves much of central and eastern Massachusetts, was faulted by the attorney general for failing to estimate the severity of Hurricane Irene and last October's rare snowstorm and for poor communications with customers and public officials. NStar officials disputes these claims, which come in the wake of a $16.3 million fine against National Grid and a $4 million fine against Western Massa chusetts Electric Company recommended by Ms. Coakley in July. In the case of WMECO, the attorney general claims the utility did not communicate effectively with customers and communities in the aftermath of the October storm and did not have enough assessors in place to estimate accurately how long it would take to restore power. WMECO disputes these allegations and others, asserting it re sponded aggressively to the storm. All three utilities have appealed the fines before the state Department of Public Utilities.

There is no denying that the utilities have difficult jobs to perform when major storms hit, and all indications are that their jobs will grow more difficult as severe weather events become more common. Beacon Hill is obviously intent on assuring that they are up to the responsibility.