April 08, 2020

Down East co-op copes with crisis> At Eastern Maine Electric, the end is in sight

CALAIS — It has been a week of ice, snow, rain and a wind chill of 20 below zero, but for a small utility in eastern Maine the end of the crisis is in sight, with only a few hundred households still without electricity.

This is the story of the little co-op that could.

Workers at the Eastern Maine Electric Co-op Inc. have been scrambling since the worst ice storm of the century struck the Down East area. EMEC is the largest of Maine’s three cooperatives, utilities owned by the users. It serves nearly 12,000 households across 1,600 miles of transmission lines.

Unlike its counterparts in the more densely populated areas of the state, the co-op has long runs of utility lines across hundreds of acres of empty land. General Manager James Dean III said Wednesday that EMEC averages about seven households per mile of line. That compares with 30 households per mile for the larger utilities. The co-op’s service area stretches from Wesley to Calais to north of Houlton.

Dean estimated the cost of repairs at $300,000, but unlike the state’s larger utilities, he does not expect the co-op to pass those costs on to ratepayers.

The general manager views this crisis as just one of many in the co-op’s nearly 70-year history. In 1987, unmanageable cost overruns at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire forced EMEC into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Three years ago, the company emerged from bankruptcy.

“Every time we get seriously tested, one way or another we seem to come out of it a stronger co-op than when we went in,” Dean said. “There are always positive aspects that spin out of these things.”

The storm struck the area one week ago and for several days power lines and trees were encased in ice, making repairs difficult.

Working foot by foot, the nearly 20 crews — including visiting crews from as far away as Massachusetts — have been restoring power to area residents as fast as they can string new lines. At the height of the storm about 10,000 of the co-op’s households were without power. As of Wednesday, only a few hundred households remained dark.

Although there were unhappy customers, co-op member communicator Charles McAlpin said for the most part, people understood. One woman who called to complain that she was without power later sent staff member Winnie Johnson a plant and a note saying how much she appreciated everyone’s efforts.

“We have had a lot of angry people, but we really do understand that,” McAlpin said.

Wednesday, McAlpin was following a schedule he had been on since the storm began, ferrying hot coffee and sandwiches to the line workers. He said that when he was hired three years ago, Dean never told him that delivering sandwiches would be a part of his job.

“When you get hired at a company of 33 employees, you know that little part of your job description `and other duties as required’ is going to be a real broad one,” McAlpin said with a laugh.

The hours have been grueling, the pace unrelenting.

“It was 40 hours of hard, hard work but all they were able to do was slow down the rate at which we were losing ground,” McAlpin said in describing those first few days.

By Saturday, co-op officials knew they faced a storm of historic proportion. “We’d put on one road and then lose two. As fast as they could work, the storm was working faster,” he said. McAlpin said line workers believed they finally turned the corner Sunday.

On Wednesday morning, McAlpin visited the line crew on the Station Road. Steve Hartin of Island Falls, who has worked for the co-op for 21 years, said this was the worst storm he’d ever seen. Hartin and his Massachusetts crew was busy replacing utility poles and restringing lines.

Office staff and dispatchers have been pressed into service. For a time Dean even took a turn at dispatching. The company’s meter reader was in the field leading visiting crews into some of the more remote areas.

McAlpin said co-op employees won’t rest until service is restored to every home.

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