Court: NStar and National Grid deserve fines for response to major 2011 storms, just not as much as the state thinks

The Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the basic logic behind a state decision to fine National Grid and NStar for their responses to Hurricane Irene and a snowstorm two months later, but said state regulators were a bit too overzealous in the fines they levied.

The ruling by the state's highest court means National Grid has to pay a $17.8 million fine for failing to procure adequate manpower in advance of the storms and for doing a poor job communicating with the public and local officials - a $900,000 reduction - while NStar has to pay $2.1 million for crappy post-storm communications - down from the $4.1 million the state wanted to levy. The court wiped $2 million off the NStar fine because while the state Department of Public Utilities made the case that NStar did a bad job letting people know when their power would be restored, the department failed to prove that NStar did a poor job actually responding to all but immediate, life-threatening power outages.

Besides critiquing the fine values, the court also upheld the state's argument that it be allowed to levy fines at all.

The utilities, along with a third electric company in the western part of the state, had argued regulators could only make decisions that would affect electric rates. The court ruled that was the case until 2009, when Gov. Patrick signed a new law that specifically let the DPU levy penalties for bad performance during and after a storm - following an incident in which some customers in Fitchburg went without power for up to two weeks after a storm.

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    When all else fails, read the actual contract

    What does the tariff say?

    Whatever level of service the utility promised to deliver, they should be held to account.

    And, if we don't like the level of service stipulated in the tariff, then put political pressure on the regulators to negotiate something better on our behalf.

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    During nastural disasters the contract is meaningless.

    Keep a few piles of them around and at least you'll have some form of toilet paper.

    The people writing these laws and regulations typically have no clue what they're even regulating. Show me one of them who can explain a kWh and how its expense is calculated based on their electricity bill, explain the idea of power transmission (including the conversion going from 50Hz to 60Hz ) and I'll most likely reserve all further comments.

    Everyone with electricity, internet and a radio has access to weather. There is hardly an excuse for being caught in a home for two weeks with no power and no plan.

    After the disaster...

    During nastural disasters the contract is meaningless.

    true dat, but after the disaster, the contract 'splains how much the utility needs to pay if it failed to do what it was supposed to do.

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    Wow.

    By on

    This comment has everything. Victim blaming. Assertions that the state can't regulate anything that each member of the assembly isn't personally an expert in. Proclamations that because something is hard to do, it's not worth doing. Blanket assertions that businesses are exempt from rules during disasters, but people are still on the hook for their own decision making.

    It's like perfect storm of bad-faith right-wing-crank argumentation. I'm going to frame this, and hang it over my desk. Thanks, Boston_res.

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    Force Majeure has its limits

    For example, if you buy insurance against flood damage, your insurer can't cite force majeure and get out of paying the claim.

    Any utility performance spec is going to include getting things back online after a force majeure event.

    Uhh

    By on

    Should we all get wood burning stoves in our Boston apartments and condos? Or is gas guaranteed, but electricity isn't?

    Me and my electric heat would be a little frosty without electricity.

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    Seriously?

    When my mother was on O2, she needed electricity. That aside, your federal, state and local government built the system that delivers electricity. They also provide millions in subsides to provide rural electricity. When these utilities were privatized, these companies had to guarantee access to service. What happened during the big ice storm showed that how much private companies care about their customers. Fining them is the only way to make sure we get service at all.

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    WRONG

    There are plenty of homes in the US still which don't have electricity.

    Fewer than 2%, due to the Rural Electrification Act. I can't find the exact number, since there are more residential customers (128 M) than households (117 M). It's tiny.

    You have to decide to be off the grid (mostly mountain or desert camping regions, or First Nations areas, both in the lower 48 and Alaska). Otherwise, the Feds wired the country up, starting back in the New Deal.

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    2% of all US homes is plenty.

    That's more than I'd want to pay property tax on.

    The actual number of US homes without electricity is hard to find. It seems most people will associate lack of electricity with poverty. I don't for a very good reason. A good decade ago I didn't even think of US homes not having electricity. I was on some work travel in Vermont and met a woman who was in the process of soliciting bids to have her home wired for electricity. She was happy as long as she had a clean well. Her home was definitely out in the mountains as you'd indicated. She found ways of doing everything she needed and lived out there year round. In the end she considered going solar and last I heard she was putting even that off for a bit.

    Cool story, bro

    By on

    A decade ago you met one woman who had (past tense) been living sans electricity and deduced that basic utilities for major metroplitan areas are superfluous. Brilliant!

    (Btw, according to the records of the Rural Electrification Administration, that 2% number was where we were in the 1970s. One imagines that the number has gotten significantly closer to 0.2% in the four decades since then.)

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    Cool story, bro

    Thanks!

    Most other people tend to fall asleep when I talk. You should see my students!

    Happy you read my whole post.

    The state and court found the

    The state and court found the companies themselves didn't prepare adequately in advance. That's the issue, not the residents.

    Telling people to just suck it up for two weeks without power and deal with it is not realistic and ridiculous.

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    It is not unrealistic and ridiculous.

    I say this because I've done it. Guess what? I lived and so did my family. Was it cold? Yes. Did it suck? Oh God yes.

    What I find ridiculous is the thought that it is trivial to have:
    A large truck get through unplowed roads

    Find a downed power line in the middle of nowhere (smart grid can't pinpoint these locations)

    Have workers put in tens of hours shifts (look up how long they're out for. Your 8-hour stints pale in comparison)

    My list can go on.

    I'm not a power engineer

    but I'll hazard a guess that, while time delay reflectometry works well for communications cables, it doesn't work as well on electrical power lines, primarily because the physical and electromagnetic characteristics of power lines are a lot more variable than those of comms lines.

    It's kind of a fun problem to solve.

    Let's say you have a long cable which is a loop. Miles long. You can measure the resistance of the entire loop, then divide that total resistance by the length of say one meter of the same cable (gives the resistance of the cable per meter). This will give you the entire length of the cables in meters. Knowing you have a loop, you can make a good guess that the mid-point is one half of the overall length (since you have one cable going out, looping and coming back). If a break is anywhere in the loop this falls apart and the computers have to resort to other less reliable tests.

    It's much easier to drive along the cables to find the downed line(s).

    Mr. Tesla's curious invention might help

    You know, there are ways to measure the electrical properties of a piece of cable other than by measuring the D.C. current passing through it. Things like inductance, capacitance, and other properties that have not only been well studied but have been in practical commercial use for over 100 years.

    You know, there are ways to measure the electrical properties...

    Absolutely. I can't think of a setup where both a signal and return aren't required though. It is definitely possible to setup a low pass or high pass circuit with known parameters and back out the unkowns using some AC amplitude and even white noise. The only thing I can think of doing with a broken cable is using it as an antenna. In which case you might be able to broadcast at whatever frequency corresponds to the wavelength of the cable of interest and determine its length that way.

    For a few feet of cable AC parameters are not hard to work with. For miles of cable, it's a bit more difficult.

    You're missing a few points

    You're missing the key question. "Did the utility have enough staff, the right equipment, the right training, appropriate procedures, etc. to deal with natural disasters that, while difficult to predict, are entirely foreseeable?" In short, is the organization's resilience maturity what it should be?"

    It's easy to achieve superior financial performance over the short term by gutting resilience.... until events catch you with your pants down.

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    Staffing!

    You bring up an excellent point! The power system as a whole is experiencing a good shortage of power workers. This is why you'll see trucks from southern power companies heading north ahead of large storms. I've even heard of retired power workers being asked to return in times of need. Power generation and transmission is not a fun sexy business. It's also boring. In consumer electronics such as iPhones, power is a very simple product of voltage and current:

    P=V*I

    In the power industry, power has the power triangle which is this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Power_Triangle_01.svg
    And it goes along with this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power
    students would now rather program a few lines of code and go to the pub.

    I have not looked into power generation for many years. I think part of what might actually help prevent some of these weeks long outages are two things: building more sub generating stations, and burying power lines underground (a very high expense).

    So, should each electrical

    By on

    So, should each electrical utility have enough full-time employees on the books to get your power back on within 12 hours (or whatever you think is reasonable) after a major storm? All the time? What are they doing the rest of the time? More importantly, are you happy paying for it?

    they promised better service for a cheaper price

    When electricity was privatized the taxpayers were promised that these companies would do a better job for less money than the municipal service. But the prices keep going up and service is worse and worse. Businesses lose a lot of money when the power is out. The municipal programs did a much better job of getting the lights back on. We should at least have a regional co-op instead for profit.

    I don't know about 12 hours

    They should have enough full time employees on the books to meet whatever level of service guarantee is spelled out by their contractual obligations to the ratepayers, which are all part of the tariff.

    Yes, I'm happy paying a little extra for more reliability -- that's kind of the way risk mitigation works.

    What I'm not happy doing, is paying a rate that was negotiated with the expectation of one level of reliability, and then, finding out after the fact that what I was getting all along was a much lower level of reliability. That's kind of like paying insurance premiums all along and finding out that the insurance company had been spending the premiums on office parties and had no reserves with which to pay claims.

    Okay, I'll take your bait.

    Yes, when I was a youngster, it was not uncommon for my family to have to do without power for up to two weeks or so after a major winter storm. I'd say that happened every other winter, on average. And we were prepared for it, we had a coal-fired furnace, a wood cookstove, kerosene lamps, home canned produce in the basement, and a pantry full of staples. We could produce our own heat, light, and food for an extended period, and the ability to do so was deeply set in our culture.

    This happened in an extremely rural corner of Appalachia, ten miles from the nearest incorporated town.

    I think the residents of urban/suburban Massachusetts can expect a higher standard of service, and nobody here is expected to maintain the level of personal autonomy we did when I was a kid. Your arguments that people should expect and be prepared for weeks without power in this area ring hollow.

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    It's a no-win

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    If they don't get fined, they'll go about business as usual, and people will be without electricity for too long after storms.

    If they do get fined, they'll just pass the fine on to the customers via a rate hike.

    You'll pay either way.

    How about the Back Bay

    How about the Back Bay blackout a few years back? I lost a ton of productivity during that mess. Did NStar ever get reamed for that?

    According to the poster

    According to the poster dominating this thread, you should have known better than to try and do work on a machine utilizing electricity when that random and unanticipated blackout happened. Next time stick to pen and paper.

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    What I don't understand

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    Is why the power companies in MA don't trim trees near power lines. In Vermont just about every year the power company would cut off branches of trees near power lines, so that in a storm they wouldn't bring the lines down. In Boston they just let the trees grow and lo and behold they cause the lines to break.

    Massachusetts is worlds better than VA

    We had vines growing across streets on the power lines and the trees were just left to their own nefarious devices. We lost power with just a stiff breeze, nevermind snow or ice. I haven't seen many trees in MA that haven't been trimmed away from the power lines.

    The municipal utilities in MA

    By on

    The municipal utilities in MA do regular trimming (I should know, I scheduled it when I worked for one!), but the private companies, not so much. They do it, but probably not quite to the level they should. MA is by no means the worst though.

    They do. Speaking as a

    By on

    They do. Speaking as a homeowner who routinely has to sign the form to have stuff cut on myh property, I can tell you that National Grid has a very proactive program of trimming.

    It's easy to understand

    The managers and owners of the power companies can put more money in their pockets by laying off the tree trimming crews and not trimming the trees than by trimming the trees properly, with the expectation that by the time the chickens come home to roost, they'll have taken their stock bonuses and moved on to another job, or closed out their investment positions.