AUGUSTA — The Public Utilities Commission decided Tuesday to examine the response by Maine utilities to the recent ice storm that left more than 600,000 people without power, many for several days.
The three-member commission unanimously approved a notice of inquiry into the utilities’ response to the storm.
The inquiry was not prompted by any allegations, said PUC spokesman Phil Lindley. “They [the commissioners] want to know what happened and they want to know what worked and what didn’t work and what could be done differently.”
Also, since the utilities could seek to pass on to ratepayers tens of millions of dollars in storm-related costs, the PUC wants to review how the companies reacted to the natural disaster and whether there are lessons to be learned, said PUC Chairman Thomas Welch. Similar steps have been taken after hurricanes hit Maine, he said.
“When an event of this significance occurs, it’s perfectly obvious the commission is going to take a look at what happened,” he said.
This inquiry will help commissioners determine whether there is reason for a formal investigation into any aspect of the ice storm event.
Lindley said the commission would ask for reports from the companies and “if something pops up they will open a formal investigation.”
Commissioners say it’s too early to tell what issues or recommendations might come from the inquiry.
“It would startle me if there were not any issues,” said Welch. For example, one issue might be whether the level of tree trimming by utilities before the ice storm was appropriate. Other questions might involve how much and how quickly backup crews were called by utilities.
“There is nothing that I know right now that suggests they [the utilities] weren’t doing exactly what they should have been doing. It’s just that we suspect people will be asking questions about that and as part of our general oversight obligation, we think people ought to be satisfied the questions have been asked and answered,” said Welch.
Public Advocate Stephen Ward, who applauded the PUC’s action, says it is always useful for utility managers to assume the PUC is looking over their shoulders before they spend ratepayer dollars.
“There is a lot of cleanup still to occur. There are lots of permanent repairs to be made to systems that have been patch worked or band aided, and the PUC’s decision today is a good way of reminding utility managers of those facts,” said Ward.
Public Utilities Commissioner Heather Hunt says the principal focus of the inquiry will be on the reports from utilities. “Our analyst will comb through those for any irregularities and any loud concerns from the public,” she said.
For example, if the public inquires about the possibility of burying electric lines, the commission will look at that issue. However, PUC officials and utility officials say burying overhead lines would come with a huge price tag.
Mark Ishkanian, a Central Maine Power Co. spokesman, said a study done in the 1980s indicated it would cost billions to bury power lines. With overhead power lines, Ishkanian said, problems can be seen quickly, which is not possible with buried lines.
Ishkanian said there is a big difference between burying lines in cities and in rural areas. In cities the huge expense is spread among a much higher population.