After a four-hour power outage on the evening of Friday, Oct. 16 — the second multi-hour outage on Bangor’s West Side in less than three weeks — many residents of Bangor’s Fairmount neighborhood had the same reaction they’d had to other power outages this year.
“It was like, ‘Here we go again,’” said Luke Pighetti, who lives on Elizabeth Avenue. “You can hear those generators start up. Why does anyone that lives in an urban area have to have a generator? It’s kind of crazy.”
The latest outage illustrated how susceptible Bangor’s West Side — and more specifically, the Fairmount neighborhood, roughly the area between Third Street, Union Street and interstates 95 and 395 — is to frequent and prolonged power outages.
Versant Power this week sent a letter to West Side residents apologizing for the Oct. 16 outage, and the company is planning to hold a virtual town hall meeting for the area to address residents’ concerns. The company has targeted that area of the city recently for upgrades aimed at improving reliability, said Versant spokesperson Judy Long.
Information on the exact number of outage events so far in 2020 on Bangor’s West Side was not available from Versant on Friday. What’s clear, however, is that the Fairmount neighborhood has experienced a number of significant power outages this year that have been less severe elsewhere in the city.
It’s due to several factors, Long said. Aging infrastructure, for example, and increasingly volatile weather patterns all contribute to the number of outages, and their length.
But for the West Side of Bangor specifically, Long said that one of the things that makes the neighborhood pleasant to live in is also one of the things that makes it more prone to power outages — its prevalence of tall, old trees.
“Fairmount has these big, magnificent trees, and unfortunately, when they’re situated near power lines, those big trees can cause a tremendous amount of damage,” she said. “The fact that the West Side was hit hard by those big wind storms is directly related to the fact that it’s a neighborhood with a lot of big trees.”
The age of power lines, poles and substations are factors in the frequency of outages. Long said the company has a reliability engineer who conducts periodic inventories of each electrical circuit — the area served by a substation — and monitors when aging power lines, poles and substations need to be replaced.
Versant retired a substation on Webster Avenue that served much of the West Side in July, Long said, after it was damaged during a wind storm in October 2017 that caused a nearly weeklong outage throughout the West Side.
Now, the customers that substation served are served by one located in Hampden. That substation is also now on a “circuit loop,” meaning that if something goes wrong in Hampden, customers can be temporarily switched to a substation located near Bangor International Airport — an option not previously available to customers served by the Webster Avenue substation.
Crews have also been doing more inspections on the West Side in recent months to see what further improvements can be made, and they’ve recently replaced 100 utility poles in the area.
“That specific part of Bangor has been the target of improvements over the last few years,” Long said. “When we see that one circuit has more outages compared to others, we take a look at how we can fix that.”
Pighetti is planning to send a request to Maine’s Public Utilities Commission asking for an audit of the overall electrical grid on the West Side, a request he’s been collecting signatures for from his neighbors.
“I think now that so many people are working from home, the requirements are higher for quality of service,” Pighetti said. “This number of outages is unacceptable.”
Cara Pelletier, who lives on West Broadway with her wife, said the recent outages have hurt her ability to do her job. Like many, she began working from home full-time once the pandemic started.
“I can’t just call my boss and say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do my job. I don’t have power,’” Pelletier said. “I’m just really surprised by the frequency and the duration of the outages. We lived out in the woods in Winterport and moved back to town and didn’t think this would be a problem, and now we’re having a generator installed.”
The bigger factor in explaining the number of outages is the bad weather that causes tree damage, Long said. Coastal Maine has traditionally experienced the sorts of storms that cause such damage, Long said, but the storms have tracked inland more frequently in recent years — such as the October 2017 wind storm that knocked out power to much of Maine for days, or the April 2020 storm that caused heavy, wet snow that pulled branches down and power lines with them. Climate change may be a factor in those storms’ increasing frequency.
Trees that fall within Versant’s right-of-way are the utility’s responsibility to trim, Long said, but trees on someone’s property and not within Versant’s right-of-way are the property owner’s responsibility to maintain, though Versant will work with property owners to safely trim a tree.
Versant has a five-year tree trim cycle, in which crews inspect all 10,400 square miles of distribution-level power lines once every five years. Additionally, in 2018 the company began its “danger tree” program, in which it flags trees that may pose a threat to power lines in the future, and monitors those specific trees for potential trimming.
Most importantly, Long said, the company needs its customers to tell them when something needs addressing.
“We need information from our customers,” she said. “We don’t have infrastructure that just automatically lets us know when something is wrong. We really need people to call us and tell us when a limb falls, or something else happens.”