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New Bill Requires NStar, Utilities to Improve Storm Response

NStar, among other utilities, will be required to provide more updates on outages, to set up a call center in Massachusetts and more.

Local residents who raised their voices about NStar's shoddy response to Hurricane Irene and its inability to promptly restore power after the storms late last year can breathe a sigh of relief. 

On Thursday the State Senate passed a bill "to address emergency service response of public utility companies in Massachusetts as a result of the widespread power outages in communities across the state during Tropical Storm Irene in August and the snowstorm in October," Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) announced in a press release. 

“I am proud to have supported a bill which will hold the utility companies accountable, create incentives for improvement, and support the front line utility employees who work tirelessly to keep us safe during the most challenging times,” said Senator Dan Wolf.

In late August after Hurricane Irene hit about 110,000 NStar customers on the South Shore and Cape and Islands were without power for several days. It took almost a week for NStar to fully restore power. 

Similarly, in October about 6 percent of Barnstable NStar customers went without power for a few days and a select few waited almost a week to have power back.

“I heard from many frustrated residents and local officials during last year’s storms, and we want to make sure our communities won’t run into the same roadblocks they did in August and October,” Murray said. “No one expected power to be restored immediately, but there were people without power for a week or longer in some cases with no knowledge of an anticipated response time. That is unacceptable.”

The bill requires public utility companies to provide twice-daily estimates to customers on when electricity will be restored following a 24-hour damage assessment period, and to set up a call center during a major storm. The call center must be located in Massachusetts and must have sufficient staffing to handle increases in calls. 

Utilities must also report storm outages to the state and designate a community liaison in each community when implementing an emergency response plan. The bill also requires utilities to designate staff at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to help coordinate a statewide response.

Additionally, utilities will pay an assessment charge to help the Department of Public Utilities pay for storm investigations. The cost of this assessment cannot be passed on to customers. The bill also ensures that any penalties assessed on utilities for violation of emergency preparation and response will be credited to customers.   

Finally, to further ensure that public utility companies in Massachusetts improve their response to cities and towns during a storm, the bill extends the possibility of receivership to all utilities in the case of gross negligence. Currently, only Unitil is subject to receivership. 

Information from a press release.

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