By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Electric utilities "stepped up their game" in responding to Hurricane Sandy and have restored power to 80 percent of the customers who lost it during Superstorm Sandy, Gov. Deval Patrick said Wednesday at a press conference.
The number of customers believed to be affected by power outages dropped from a mid-storm high of 387,000 at 11 p.m. Monday, to 85,000 as of 1 p.m. Wednesday. Patrick said the rate of power restoration is twice the rate during and after the October 2011 snowstorm -- when more than twice as many customers lost power.
"Now, 89,000 is still a high number and if you are one of the families or businesses without power, that is very concerning," Patrick said.
Among the state's two biggest utilities, NSTAR plans to have restored power to nearly everyone by the end of the day Thursday, and National Grid plans to do the same by the end of the day Friday, according to Patrick and Department of Public Utilities officials.
"This team and I will look to the utilities to do better than that, to continue to lean forward, but I think certainly compared to the October experience last year, the utilities have stepped up their game," Patrick said. "We appreciate that. We'll continue to monitor their performance until everyone's power is restored."
Patrick credited improvements in communication, coordination and in trimming tree limbs that might have interfered with wires, and also noted that winds were "stronger and longer" than Tropical Storm Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm.
Outages during Irene affected about 1.2 million customers and October 2011 outages affected 903,000, according to the Attorney General's Office.
The governor also said that the grade is not in yet for the state's utilities, which include NSTAR, National Grid, Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and Fitchburg Gas & Electric Light Co.
"A couple of early lessons: Communication is much improved between utilities and their customers, and between the utilities and us, but there's always room for improvement, and there are isolated complaints that we've heard and we'll be following up on those to see if there aren't systemic lessons we can take away from that," Patrick said. "It's also plain that there are some infrastructure investments that utilities are going to have to make in areas where there are, if you will, chronic or repeated issues."
Patrick referred to the "Foxboro loop" or "Norton loop" as well as electrical infrastructure in Worcester that are in need of improvement. The route the state would take to push utilities to improve their grids is a "grid-modernization proceeding," he said.
"These are private companies, but in a way they are -- and the chairwoman might not like me describing them this way -- they are regulated monopolies, and so you don't get to choose in most communities to go with this company rather than that company. There are territories that they get," Patrick said. "In exchange for that, our expectation is that they're going to maintain these systems adequately, and there's some question about the level of infrastructure investment over time and the importance of updating that."
The Department of Public Utilities is going to announce its findings soon in three cases against NSTAR, National Grid and Western Massachusetts Electric for their handling of 2011 storms. Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rick Sullivan said the companies' performance during the most recent storm is not a consideration in those cases.
"That docket was very specific to the prior storms and their response," Sullivan said. "Human nature being what it is, clearly the utilities understand they are under review. They have been under very close scrutiny for their previous actions and have been under scrutiny for this one as well."
Massachusetts escaped the worst of the storm, and the state has been able to lend its equipment and personnel to states that were devastated, such as New York and New Jersey.
Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has sent seven staffers to the New York Emergency Operations Center in Albany for a two-week deployment to help with the Hurricane Sandy recovery. The deployment was part of a mutual-aid agreement where Massachusetts is a participant. The state also sent a search-and-rescue team to Connecticut and New York and sent two Blackhawk helicopters to New Jersey.
Patrick said President Barack Obama held two conference calls with all governors affected by the storm -- one to make sure states were coordinating with FEMA and a second on Tuesday to "check in."
Patrick also said the much-publicized praise New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie laid on the president was felt by other governors, from as far south as North Carolina.
"That praise is deserved and it is shared by every single governor on the call yesterday. The president went down and asked everyone... an opportunity to talk about what their experience has been and whether they had unmet needs," Patrick said. He said every governor said the FEMA partnership "has been superb."
The bad weather canceled Patrick's plans to campaign for Obama in Florida and elsewhere. But Patrick is looking to return to the campaign trail. On Wednesday, Patrick said he might campaign for Obama in Colorado on Friday, and said he plans to campaign for Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts over the weekend and for Obama in New Hampshire on Saturday afternoon.
Outages from the October storm began on a Saturday, and National Grid had dealt with the problem by the following Saturday, according to a graph prepared by DPU Commissioner David Cash. NSTAR's response to the storm was over by the Thursday after the Saturday storm.
"Restoration from some of the companies took a whole week," Cash said, referring to the 2011 storm.
Even once the bulk of power restorations are complete, there could be some pockets where the unique circumstances mean customers will be without power, said DPU Chairwoman Ann Berwick.
"When the utilities talk about getting everybody restored, they're really talking about 99 percent or something like that," Berwick told reporters. "There are always some number of people without power, some handful, because of unique events."