Power company crews trim branches more often and more severely than was in their practice before the Ice of Storm of 1998, a simple change that company officials say goes a long way toward helping the state avoid a repeat of the long-term outages that memorable storm caused.

“We live in a tree-ridden state. And distribution lines near trees are vulnerable,” said Lisa Martin, manager of strategy and development at Emera Maine, who in January of 1998 was working for Bangor Hydro (now part of Emera).

Some trees’ branches were encased an inch or more of ice during the ‘98 storm, according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the safety and reliability of the power companies. Emera is now moving to shorten its tree-trimming cycle from six years to five.

After the massive Ice Storm of 1998, Central Maine Power started a tree-trimming program that clears branches within eight feet of any side of a pole or within 15 feet above it. Inspectors regularly check poles, transmission arms, wires, insulators, fuses and equipment along the circuits.

“We’ve made a lot of changes in the past 20 years,” CMP spokesperson Gail Rice said. “Preparation and response really improved over time. We know when to pull the trigger and tell employees ‘all hands are on deck for a storm, and have a bag packed in case you have to go to another area.’ ”

So, even though the remarkable wind storm last October 2017 left more nearly 600,000 Mainers in the dark, Rice and Martin both said storm preparation, infrastructure resilience and response time are improving, storm by storm. And they noted that power was restored more quickly in October than it was 20 years ago.

Rice said during the ice storm, 360,000 CMP customers suffered outages over the course of the storm and that it took 23 days to get everyone’s power restored. In 2017, she said, 470,000 CMP customers lost power, but 99 percent got it back within six days. The final one percent had it restored within 10 days.

“The numbers of outages were higher [in October], but we had them back in half the time,” Rice said.

Bangor Hydro had 105,290 outages during the ice storm. Most were eliminated within 12 days, Martin said. However, a transmission line Down East took 29 days to rebuild it.

During the most recent storm, Emera restored power to 132,000 customers within eight days.

Technological advances

According to Martin and Rice, the 1998 storm helped Maine’s power companies identify problem areas. Today both CMP and Emera have smart meters and other new technology to help pinpoint outages.

In 1998, when a nine-mile-long, one-way transmission line went out, most of Down East lost power, Martin said. “We now have a looped system with a lot of redundancies,” she said. “It is in sections, and you can flow power in the opposite direction.”.

Technology came into play as well with installation of a two-way smart meter system, GPS systems, iPads and wireless modems in each bucket truck to help dispatchers identify which truck is closest to a given outage, Martin said.

CMP, meanwhile, has added two major upgrades since the ice storm. It modernized its 40-year-old backbone transmission system with the $1.4 billion Maine Power and Reliability Program in 2012. And it added an advanced metering system that includes 630,000 smart meters. Rice said it includes 630,000 smart meters, 7,000 repeaters, 1,048 extender bridges and 60 gateways, all aimed at keeping electricity and information flowing through the company’s system.

Despite the improvements, CMP encountered some glitches in its smart meters and its outage maps during the October 2017 storm. Rice would not comment on the failure of the company’s $200 million smart meter network because the Public Utilities Commission is investigating both CMP’s and Emera’s storm responses.

Eventually, both companies will almost certainly have to grapple with another devastating ice storm. In its final report on the 1998 storm, the PUC pointed out, “In December 1929 an ice storm extended from western New York into Maine, causing tree and aerial line damage comparable to this storm. Winter weather experts expect storms of similar magnitude every 40 to 90 years.”

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