Versant Power works on Silver Road in Bangor after a storm brought high winds and knocked out power to more than 100,000 people in September 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine’s Public Utilities Commission has dismissed a complaint against Versant Power from 13 residents of Bangor’s Fairmount neighborhood, though the commission found the complaint about power reliability in the neighborhood had merit.

The complaint, sent Oct. 31, 2020, alleged that Bangor’s Fairmount neighborhood had experienced an unreasonable number of long-lasting power outages, and that the outages had grown worse over the last five years. There were at least three multi-hour or multi-day outages in large swaths of Fairmount in 2020, with other, smaller outages occurring in smaller areas of the neighborhood. The Fairmount neighborhood is roughly the area between Third Street, Union Street and interstates 95 and 395.

Versant in October 2020 blamed the neighborhood’s high prevalence of tall, old trees situated near power lines. When a branch from one of those trees falls, it can knock out power to multiple streets, or even the entire neighborhood.

Though Versant had already done work to improve reliability in the neighborhood, including moving most of the neighborhood off an old substation on Webster Avenue and onto a more reliable one in Hampden, outcry from residents on social media appears to have prompted an extensive tree-trimming effort by Versant last year.

Earlier in 2020, Versant identified 16 “problem trees” in the neighborhood, and removed 11 of them, according to the Public Utilities Commission document dismissing the complaint.

And after an outage on Oct. 16 that knocked out power for more than four hours for some Fairmount residents, Versant sent out a letter to residents apologizing for the outage, and later held a virtual forum for residents to address neighborhood concerns. Due to “neighborhood sentiment,” the utility had trimmed trees around 80 percent of circuits in the neighborhood.

“We worked closely with residents on this effort, as we appreciate how important the trees are to the community,” Versant spokesperson Judy Long said. “We received permission to trim and remove a number of trees, which will decrease the potential for outages resulting from falling trees and limbs.”

Long also said that Versant’s inspectors identified an area on Webster Avenue that would benefit from the installation of insulated wire, also known as tree wire, which Long says is more resilient to falling limbs.

“We started work to prepare for installation of tree wire at the end of 2020 and will start work next week to run the actual wire,” Long said on Tuesday. “We will work with customers to move their electricity service onto this new service, since it is likely to involve brief outages to safely make that switch.”

Luke Pighetti, who led the complaint to the Public Utilities Commission, said he thinks time will tell if service quality has actually improved since Versant’s tree-trimming efforts were undertaken. Overall, he said, he was happy overall with the outcome from the complaint.

“I agree with MEPUC’s assessment that the complaint had merit and to close it until further notice,” Pighetti said. “It’s too early to say if it has improved, but there have been a few storms recently that we all assumed we’d lose power from, and we didn’t.”

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.