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Editorial: Pushing utilities on storm responses

Two storms, two utilities, two distinct state Department of Public Utilities verdicts: One western Massachusetts power supplier is in need of an outside management audit to correct “systemic failures” in how it prepared for and responded to Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm.

The other, which serves most of the Amherst area and is a bigger player generally in our region, did pretty well. The big gap in fines is instructive. If the dollar figures were letter grades, the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. might have gotten a qualified B. National Grid is flirting with a D.

Government must compel the utilities to reach for the highest levels of service — and minimize the hardship that results from power losses. It is a cost of doing business for utilities, and they know it. But the fines play out in a kind of political theater, in which government must show that tough-minded oversight is safeguarding the public.

After taking testimony at 16 public hearings and reviewing 1,200 exhibits, the state regulatory agency fined WMECO $ 2 million and National Grid $18.7 million. Another utility that does not operate in our area, NSTAR, was fined $4 million.

While National Grid officials said they accept the penalty and acknowledged that its customers were ill-served, WMECO’s president feels the fine unfairly punishes a company that worked hard to minimize power losses during the Halloween storm.

Since the DPU did praise aspects of WMECO’s preparation for that heavy early season snowfall, President Peter Clarke’s dismay is understandable. The company is appealing the fine and can be expected to argue that its people — including special teams brought in from outside the region that expanded its workforce by 10 times — handled 3,300 major power interruptions that affected 65 percent of its service area. In all, WMECO brings power to 210,000 customers in 59 communities.

WMECO may be able to make the case that on balance, its response was adequate. However, plenty of its customers remember the days, or weeks, they went without power at home. In WMECO’s region, the October 2011 storm resulted in many more power losses than even the 2008 ice storm, which mainly struck less populated Hilltowns on both sides of the Valley.

The DPU says WMECO must improve its communications with life-support customers who need electricity to power medical devices. There may be no more vulnerable population.

The utility was also rapped for not keeping local officials well enough informed. That communication is vital. Without it, the political fallout from bad weather only grows worse.

National Grid was also faulted for not doing enough to brief local officials on how it was working to restore power. It must now open its operations to an auditor, in part because things it was judged to handle poorly during 2011’s bad weather had already been flagged as problems. It serves more than 30,000 customers in Northampton, Belchertown, Granby, Williamsburg, Goshen and Ware.

That inaction shows a disregard for public safety and warrants the hefty fine it was assessed — which is $2.7 million more than the fine recommended by state Attorney General Martha Coakley. She also sought a $4 million fine for WMECO. The fact that the DPU came in at half that level signals it believes WMECO did a lot of things right.

Now that it’s winter, we’re all mindful that storms will push through the region and jeopardize the flow of electricity we take for granted. It’s worth noting that the storms that caused so much trouble last year came in summer and fall. As they announced the fines, state officials cautioned that our unstable climate may well bring more storms.

Gov. Deval Patrick said the utilities must remain accountable to customers and “refocus their efforts on preparation for and response to weather events in the future.” And Richard K. Sullivan, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said being able to count on electric service is crucial as “serious weather events” increase in Massachusetts.

While storms may pack enough punch to frustrate even the best-laid plans, the public has a right to expect that every reasonable precaution is taken.

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