Thanks for Saving Christmas, Utility Line Workers

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Power to the People is a column by Donald M. Kreis, New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere.

By DONALD M. KREIS, Power to the People

What a year 2022 has been for the state’s beleaguered electric customers.  Rates soared to astronomical levels – and now, you might conclude, our four utilities even managed to ruin Christmas for thousands and thousands of people.

Some Granite Staters, especially in the western part of the state, spent the holiday either shivering in the dark or (more likely) improvising.  They melted snow so they could flush their toilets, they warmed themselves at wood stoves, they exchanged holiday gifts by candlelight.

I get paid to fight back against utility lassitude, greed, and incompetence – as the state’s three investor-owned electric utilities (Eversource, Liberty, and Unitil) well know.  The fourth electric utility is the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC), which has opted out of most regulation by the Public Utilities Commission.  I keep an eye on the Co-op nevertheless, because the statute that created my office does not exempt even customer-owned utilities from our skeptical scrutiny. 

Over the past week, as the weather pattern known as a “bomb cyclone” laid siege to much of the continental U.S. just in time for Christmas, I have kept a sharp eye on the performance of all four of our electric utilities.  In my opinion, they deserve not our hatred or our ridicule but our gratitude.

Let’s start with some basics.

New England has a really robust, federally regulated transmission system for moving bulk power at high voltage around the region.  You don’t need to thank the utilities for that; we pay the highest transmission rates in the country.

But this means that when something like a bomb cyclone hits, the outages generally do not occur on the transmission grid but, rather, on the distribution system that is subject to state regulation.  I’m talking about the poles and wires that move electricity at relatively low voltage from utility substations, along the streets and fields of our neighborhoods, directly to our homes and workplaces.

What causes distribution circuits to fail?  Mostly it’s trees and wind.

When a falling tree limb makes contact with a distribution line, the power goes out.  Sometimes it’s just for a second or two, because a device known as a “recloser” has popped open the line to give the errant limb time to fall to earth and the electric circuit to return to normal, at which point the recloser recloses and the electricity goes back on.

Other times, there’s actual damage.  In that case, the recloser pops open again and a repair crew with a bucket truck has to show up and restore the power.  It is laborious and dangerous work, especially in extreme weather conditions, and when thousands of these individual incidents happen all at once the utilities and their crews become overwhelmed.

Utilities have mutual aid systems that kick in during such crises.  For example, the NHEC imported crews from the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative all the way from Virginia.

Why so far away?  Because when a big storm hits the utilities that are nearest by are dealing with the exact same conditions and are, themselves, overwhelmed.

In technical terms, none of this has to happen, of course.  We could create an electricity grid that never fails.  We could, for starters, put the whole system underground.  This would make electricity not just outrageously expensive, as it is now, but completely out of the question for most – truly a luxury item.  So we don’t do it.

Here is a thought experiment.  Ask yourself how much you would be willing to pay to guarantee that your electricity never fails.

If you conduct that thought experiment, and it prompts you to buy a couple of Tesla “PowerWall” batteries, congratulations for having the resources and the moxie to take those steps.  But even if you do nothing, you have at least outsmarted most utilities.

Why do I say that?  Because, over the years I have discovered that most if not all utilities have no idea how much value, in monetary terms, residential customers attach to the next unit of reliability that utilities invest in and add to rates.

Instead, as far as I know, our electric utilities simply conclude that more reliability is better reliability.  They have every reason to do that, not just because of all the outrage heaped upon them during storm recovery efforts but also because when the power is down the utility gets no revenue.

Utilities, especially the investor-owned ones, really like revenue.  Believe me when I say that your utility has no incentive to keep you suffering with an extended outage any more than necessary.

For more insight, read one of the best books of 2022 – California Burning, by Katherine Blunt of The Wall Street Journal.  Although Blunt tells a distant story, about the epic failure of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in light of the growing threat of wildfires, it is germane to us in New Hampshire.

One of Blunt’s main points is that PG&E was too willing to divert resources away from operations – stuff like inspecting and repairing transmission and distribution lines – in favor of buying assets on which they receive a return on investment.  The regulatory system we use in New Hampshire suffers from the same bias toward investing in toys rather than paying for people.

That’s important because, it turns out, the people really matter.

One such person is Alyssa Clemsen Roberts, the new CEO of the Co-op, who put a Christmas eve video on social media in which she forthrightly confessed: “It’s going to be an unusual and challenging holiday.  Many of you are without power today, and some of you will likely be without power on Christmas.”

At roughly the same time, Clemsen Roberts’ counterpart at Liberty, Neil Proudman, texted me with news that “we should be all wrapped up today . . . will be looking for volunteers [from among his employees] to help other NH utilities later today.”

Forgive me for focusing on the big cheeses at the utilities; these are the people who tend to reach out to me in my official capacity.  The people who really matter are the line workers who labored outdoors during the bomb cyclone; they were too busy braving the elements to text me.

These are the utility employees who truly deserve our thanks as we wrap up 2022.  Here’s hoping they have less to do in 2023.

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