Last week's storm tested the preparations CMP and Versant Power put in place after a devastating 2017 storm.
A Central Maine Power Co. crew clears branches from electric wires on a side street in Harrison on Tuesday morning, following a strong storm last week that knocked out power to tens of thousands throughout Maine. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

Thousands of Mainers remained without power Tuesday, five days after a fierce storm ripped through the state, causing damage that in some parts of Maine exceeded the October 2017 windstorm.

But the state’s two major utilities said they were better prepared for this storm after investing in tree-cutting and technology and assembling large crews ahead of a storm that brought a peak of 365,000 outages between the companies. That was just short of the storm five years ago that peaked above 400,000 for the worst outage event in Maine history.

This storm, which unleashed winds up to 70 mph ahead of a fast plunge in temperatures, hit a week after both Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power ranked last in a J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey. One major incentive for the utilities to improve responses is that Mainers are set to vote next year on a question that would establish a consumer-owned utility to buy out the infrastructure of CMP and Versant.

The regulatory Maine Public Utilities Commission said it frequently reviews the storm response for investor-owned utilities including CMP and Versant. Commission Chair Philip Bartlett did not say whether the agency would do so while acknowledging the severity of the storm.

With power still out for some customers, spokespeople for each company said it is too early to report on the overall response. Versant said its system held up better now than it had in the past for strong storm conditions, including the October 2017 windstorm, during which its customers experienced more than 4.2 million aggregate hours of service interruptions.

“We have not yet validated the data for this storm, but we feel certain this will end up among the top 10,” Versant spokesperson Judy Long said. “Damage from this storm, particularly in areas of northern Maine, near Pushaw Lake, and on the coast, is beyond what we have seen from similar storms in recent years.”

She noted Versant has made investments over the past several years, including putting line segments into sections so the utility can bring groups of customers online more quickly. The utility also expanded use of tablets to make assignments more quickly.

To prepare for storms, CMP monitors forecasts three times a day through multiple meteorological services and consults historical models to determine the likely outage numbers and to plan how many contractors it needs. It also pre-stages them across the service area, CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said.

The utility started the storm with 100 CMP crews, 450 contract line crews and 220 tree crews. It added 200 line crews and 70 tree crews as the storm hit and progressed. Hartnett said there is a point during the restoration when it takes an equivalent amount of resources, time and equipment to make the repairs that restore one customer as it does for hundreds at once.

Both utilities communicated updates daily, which is more frequently than during previous storms, via email to customers and via social media. Versant, which had a peak of more than 70,000 outages overnight from Friday to Saturday, had outages at 3,119 meters as of 4:15 p.m. Tuesday. CMP topped 295,000 outages over the weekend and was down to 118 by 4:40 p.m. Tuesday.

“We were obviously sensitive to the fact that it was a holiday weekend and wanted to ensure people had a sense for the severity of the storm and could  anticipate the length of outages,” Hartnett said.