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Donna Perry: Who’s Got The Power?

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Donna Perry says last weekend's snowstorm shows major changes need to come to the way RI deals with large power outages.

The crusty black mounds that now frame most streets and sidewalks are what remain of 27 inches of hard driving snow that brought much of the state to a virtual standstill just six days ago. But before the Blizzard of 2013 completely melts into memory, we need to confront what occurred in the immediate days following the storm before the next round.

Let’s make no mistake about it: massive and days-long losses of power now seem destined to become a troubling new fact of our busy modern lives. Exactly why, however, certainly seems a question that needs more substantive scrutiny than it has received.

It’s not just the issue that by most estimates, nearly half of the population (the customer number merely means households, within each household are multiple family members) of Rhode Island lost their power due to the storm, in most cases for several days. The wider questions should now be: what is the true ability of Rhode Island’s electrical infrastructure to hold up to increasingly frequent extreme weather? What is the ability of local officials to properly confront widespread power losses-- and coordinate adequate response plans once the power drops out?

It’s a serious growing dilemma when one considers that the combined estimate on power loss by household count over the past 18 months following the three major storms (Tropical Storm Irene, Superstorm Sandy, and the Blizzard) is roughly 700,000 households in Rhode Island. In all cases, power was knocked out for anywhere from two to six days.

A Rhode Island Problem

No one disputes that National Grid knows its business very well and seems to employ appropriate numbers of crews to scatter throughout the state and make repairs to the zapped power lines following destructive storms. The more frequently-occurring massive power losses, which seem to affect coastal areas of the state especially hard, may have more to do with Rhode Island’s transmission and distribution systems, as National Grid has noted, that run miles under our Bay and waterways to power coastal communities in the East Bay and southern coastal portions of the state. 

That could account for why Rhode Islanders experienced power losses in greater numbers than neighboring states getting hit with the exact same weather force. For instance, Connecticut, which saw even higher snow totals in some areas (40 inches was logged in Hamden) and had no less wind no doubt, experienced power losses closer to 20,00-35,000.

Rhode Island needs to examine its underwater connection systems that exist in parts of the state and assess whether its age, level of deterioration, and vulnerability to increasingly fierce coastal storms make it a piece of infrastructure that has to be replaced and/or repositioned.

More Communication Needed

Last week's snowstorm showed there are still problems with communication between Rhode Island's residents and those "in power."

But what also needs to be pursued in the wake of the most recent ordeal is about basic communication and coordination. Elected officials both statewide and in cities and towns need to stop being a bystander to the National Grid reconnection process within local communities.

It can’t continue that the power outage reporting and reconnection process remains isolated strictly between National Grid and the individual customer during these massive outages. A local designee needs to troubleshoot between the local homeowners’ concerns about fallen live wires on their property, a lost call to the automated reporting center, and on and on.

When the Governor declares a state of emergency, the local EMA official or a designee within the local Police Department needs to be visible, known, and accessible to troubleshoot between the “powerless” homeowner and National Grid.

That clearly is not happening in local communities, except within the largest cities, such as Providence, with a visible local EMA operation. It’s increasingly troubling to watch our statewide officials, from Governor Chafee on down, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with National Grid spokesmen at EMA press conferences in the hours and days following storms, repeatedly congratulating each other—while outside in the real mayhem, individual customers living in the dark and cold have no reassurance whether that call they placed multiple times to the 800 automated National Grid line has actually been received and means anything.

The “powerless”—which means a whole lot of us over the past week—need to insist to both those transmitting the power, and those in power, that infrastructure and local coordination are concerns that don’t melt away so easily this time.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of RI Taxpayers. (http://www.ritaxpayers.com). 


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