Maine continues to top most other states in the number and duration of power outages caused primarily by severe weather and downed trees, but regulators and utilities are aiming to improve upon that dubious distinction.
The state ranked first nationally in its average of four outages per year and second in outage duration of 14 hours annually over a five-year period from 2015 to 2019, a recently released analysis of federal data by electric automation company MRO Electric found. Outages are counted if they last more than five minutes. Even when discounting severe weather, Maine still ranked first in outages and second in duration, indicating the weather is not merely to blame and the state can improve network reliability.
There is a cost to that poor record beyond Mainers’ frustration. Electric downtime could dissuade large energy consumers such as industrial businesses from expanding in the state, said Todd Griset, an energy lawyer at Preti Flaherty in Portland. Some, including semiconductor makers, have sensitive processes that power outages can damage.
Griset said the frequent outages are a surprise to visitors to the state. Some experiencing them in a weekend cabin retreat may find the experience rustic, but others who want to work do not. When the electricity goes out, internet service often goes out with it.
“Often, I hear, ‘You mean, you live with power outages like that? How do you work?’” he said. “It’s challenging when you can’t charge your cell phone or find out your kid’s school is canceled because you don’t have the power to communicate.”
CMP and Versant have been repeatedly criticized by consumers and lawmakers for slow restorations after major storms, most notably poor performance following the October 2017 wind storm, when nearly half a million Mainers were in the dark, some for the better part of a week.
That history has affected the public perception of CMP, which is trying to push ahead with a contested $1 billion hydropower corridor through western Maine, as many question whether it can handle such a large project if it falls short in its core electricity business. Versant has 160,000 customers in eastern and northern Maine and CMP has about 636,000 customers in central and southern Maine.
The new outage data come at a time when the country as a whole is experiencing a record number of hurricanes, floods and wildfires, amplified by climate change, according to reinsurance company Munich Re. Damages from severe weather totaled $95 billion in the U.S. last year, up from $67 billion in 2019.
Griset said that will continue to put more pressure on Maine, which at 90 percent is the most heavily forested state, “but we’re not powerless.” Expensive backup generators or battery storage are answers for some, but are not affordable to everyone, nor are microgrids for communities or islands. He said utilities can do a variety of things to mitigate the effects, including better tree trimming and infrastructure design.
Versant and CMP are being more proactive than in the past in cutting trees, deploying crews before a storm hits and adding technology that can more quickly isolate and locate problems for repair. The Maine Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utilities, is investigating possibly holding utilities to performance-based standards. And Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has proposed a bill that would prevent investor-owned transmission and distribution utilities from raising rates to cover costs incurred during a disaster such as a major storm. Berry, a top utility critic, also is behind a bill that would replace CMP and Versant with a consumer-owned utility.
CMP is running a pilot project in Jackman to more thoroughly cut trees, spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said. The company is limited now to trimming trees to 15 feet above its wires. It asked regulators in 2018 to allow it to trim as high as needed, but the request was rejected because of high cost, she said. Instead, regulators allowed the company to try out the concept in Jackman.
“If there’s an overhanging branch 16 feet up, we couldn’t touch it,” she said. “This allows us to replace poles and wire, install more automation and do ground-to-sky tree trimming, so we can really reduce the incidence of branches falling.”
Versant is adding protective equipment such as breakers that can decrease the length of line that needs to be fixed and fault indicators that flash to help the repair crew quickly locate outages, spokesperson Judy Long said. The company trims more than 2,000 miles of trees and inspected more than 1,000 miles of lines each year.
How aggressively public utilities can act depends on what their shareholders are willing to pay for a return on investment and how much regulators will allow rate hikes related to performance and reliability.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission evaluates every major storm, and in the case of the October 2017 windstorm it identified improvements for future storm performance by CMP and then-Emera Maine, spokesperson Susan Faloon said. Those included better communication and coordination with others involved in restoration and providing accurate outage and restoration time information to customers.
Under an enhanced law in 2019, Versant and CMP are required to establish and file their emergency response plan for recovery and restoration every two years. It also allows the commission to open an investigation if a utility fails to meet its plan.
The commission also recently adopted reliability benchmarks for Versant, which is in the middle of a rate case, that would penalize the utility if it fails to meet them. Faloon said the commission expects to establish similar benchmarks for CMP as well. In December, it opened a case to examine performance metrics and other factors for utilities with the goal of improving reliability while controlling costs.
One outcome is that the state could enshrine a set of outage- and reliability-related metrics and associated benchmarks, Faloon said. But she cautioned that because Maine is rural and heavily forested, a virtually unlimited amount of money and time could be spent on reliability and resiliency.
“The potential benefits of those investments always have to be weighed against the costs,” she said.