AG seeks details from utilities on storm response

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / September 1, 2011

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With more than 100,000 customers still without power yesterday, Attorney General Martha Coakley asked the state’s four investor-owned utilities to detail how they prepared for and handled the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene, which hit the state Sunday.

The utilities - National Grid, NStar, Western Massachusetts Electric Co., and Unitil Corp. - have 30 days to respond to the request, which Coakley made as the state’s ratepayer advocate.

“We want to know from the utilities: What was your plan ahead of time? How was it executed?’’ Coakley said. “Our inquiry at this point is not to find fault [but to determine] what kinds of things can utilities do to be better prepared.’’

Combined, NStar and National Grid had roughly 800,000 customers lose power at the peak of the storm. By yesterday evening, they had restored electricity to all but 112,000 - 29,000 at NStar and 83,000 at National Grid.

“By the end of Friday, we’re hoping to have about 90 percent of our customers back, leaving about 50,000 to get to on Saturday and Sunday,’’ said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid’s Massachusetts operations. “Right now, we are focusing on restoration and the attorney general’s office knows that.’’

Reed said the company will respond to Coakley’s request for information as soon as possible.

At NStar, spokeswoman Caroline Allen said the utility has been in constant contact with state and local officials and customers about restoration efforts, and welcomed the attorney general’s inquiry, calling it an opportunity to discuss how NStar could “improve our responses to customers.’’

In recent years, Coakley has become more aggressive about monitoring how the state’s utilities handle outages and other problems caused by storms. Her office investigated National Grid’s response to a snowstorm late last year that left some customers without power for 36 hours. National Grid ultimately agreed to a settlement worth more than $2.2 million, including payments to the United Way and Red Cross, and training for local safety authorities.

Following a devastating 2008 ice storm that left some Unitil customers without power for up to two weeks, Coakley recommended stiff fines for the company. The utility was ordered to conduct a management audit at its own expense, but was not fined specifically for its performance.

Coakley said her scrutiny of the utilities’ response to Irene is mostly routine, but her office has heard complaints from local officials and customers frustrated with what they see as a lack of detailed information about when their power will be restored.

“I don’t know if we can give them satisfaction,’’ Coakley said, “but at least they know we are asking for answers.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at or on Twitter @ailworth.