This year’s Christmas week ice storm could be deemed an “extraordinary storm event,” which would allow Maine electric utilities to seek a rate increase to offset the millions of dollars spent on recovery efforts.
“Generally, if the storm meets the criteria, then we would seek to recover those expenses at the appropriate time,” said Gail Rice, spokeswoman for Central Maine Power Co. The storm damage would be factored into the utility’s overall price change filing, she said.
Neither CMP nor Bangor Hydro Electric Co. has yet tallied the expenses associated with the ice storm, which knocked out power to 160,000 Maine homes and businesses.
“Certainly that possibility exists if the storm damage is as bad as we think it is,” said Bob Potts, a spokesman for Bangor Hydro. “It’s just too soon to tell. … A lot of it will come down to the final number.”
CMP said Monday that almost all of its customers would have power restored by the end of the day, with the exception of a cluster in the Lincoln County town of Jefferson that “looks like a war zone,” according to Rice. A total of 396 customers were still without power Tuesday morning.
Bangor Hydro’s service area took a direct hit from the Dec. 22-23 ice storm, with 40,000 homes and businesses losing power – more than a third of its customers. That’s one reason the utility says some homes won’t have power back until New Year’s Day.
“We want to keep folks informed about realistic expectations,” said Potts. “It’s going to get bitterly cold. … If someone has been without power for some time, we want to make sure they take advantage of the emergency shelters available, or call a neighbor, friend or family members.
“For the most part, people are pretty savvy. If you live in Maine, this is kind of par for the course,” he said.
Bangor Hydro reported that 185 of its customers were without power Tuesday morning.
Temperatures were forecast to drop down to 5 degrees Monday night and hit zero degrees Wednesday night along the coast and even colder in central Maine, with Augusta likely to hit minus-7.
Down East areas including Hancock County were hit hard by the ice storm and the foul weather that followed, but by late Monday the Red Cross had closed the last of its six emergency shelters for storm victims.
The shelters saw a total of 255 overnight stays and served 1,600 meals and snacks. Nearly 60 Mainers spent Christmas shelters, the agency said.
“Normally I’d be hanging around Walmart to stay warm,” said Alan Stanley, a homeless veteran who had been sleeping in his car before moving to a shelter at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School. “Maine people are quite resilient, but being around the Red Cross has been a godsend. … They’re here to help.”
Heavy, wet snow fell Sunday night, adding to the burden of ice and snow already on the trees and lines. That snapped more branches and sent outage numbers back up.
More snow may hit Thursday and Friday, unless the system veers east and out to sea, according to the National Weather Service.
The series of destructive storms in quick succession is part of a weather pattern that has taken over the region, funneling storms up the East Coast.
“Sometimes we get in a pattern like this, where once a week you end up getting a storm,” said Mike Kistner of the National Weather Service office in Gray. “Sometimes it takes something really big instead of these fast-movers to break up the pattern.”
Most of the outside crews who came to Maine to help with repairs returned home over the weekend, although Bangor Hydro still has crews from its sister utility in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“There became a point where we had so many on, they were waiting around for the other shoe to fall,” Potts said.
The damage to the system and the costs of running hundreds of crews 16 and 17 hours a day could lead the utilities to request a special rate hike to help pay for the damage.
CMP budgets $2.5 million a year for what it terms “non-extraordinary” storm costs. A rule by the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates electric rates in Maine, allows utilities to seek a special temporary rate increase to cover the costs of “extraordinary” events. Recovering those costs from ratepayers can take place in a single year or can be spread out over multiple years, Rice said.
For CMP, those events are defined as something that knocks out power to at least 20 percent of the utility’s customer base in a single day and costs more than $1.5 million in repairs. Potts was unable to say what the threshold is for Bangor Hydro, though he speculated that the 20 percent outage threshold would be similar.
CMP saw 123,000 customers lose power, or 20.5 percent of its 600,000 customers, in the aftermath of the ice storm.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy knocked out power to 147,000 CMP customers at its peak, and the PUC allowed the utility to recoup more than $5 million in recovery costs.
CMP customers endured two major storms in 2011. Tropical Storm Irene cut power to 364,000 in August and a nor’easter in October cut power to 145,000. The PUC allowed the utility to pass on more than $8 million in recovery costs in 2012 and $7.6 million in 2013 for the two storms, Rice said.
Bangor Hydro’s 40,000 outages at the height of last week’s storm amount to 35 percent of its 115,000 customer base.
The damage was not as widespread as the ice storm of 1998, though the intensity of the damage in Hancock County is similar, Potts said.
“It’s going to probably be another week before we know what our internal costs are. The external crews that come in, it takes time for them to get together their costs and invoice us for that.”
Potts said it’s hard to compare the costs of one storm to another.
“Even aside from the damage itself, if we’re not bringing in all these outside crews, then we’re not feeding them, putting them up in hotel rooms. … Those carry a big price tag, not to mention the equipment as well,” he said.
Unpredictable and extremely damaging ice is a utility’s nightmare.
“It was really tough last week because it got really cold,” Rice said. “Not everyone has a wood stove and not everyone has a generator.”
Among those who were hit by power failures were Paula Pullen and Dexter Smith of Hancock, who have been without power for most of the past week and first lost power on Dec. 23.
Since then, the couple had a few hours of electricity on Christmas Day and again on Sunday, but they spent the bulk of the past week stoking their wood stove to heat their house and cook venison stew. They kept busy playing pool and cards in their basement by flashlight and kerosene lights.
Smith said Monday they burned three-quarters of a cord of wood in the past week alone. They usually burn four cords per winter.
“We were very lucky. There’s a lot of people without wood stoves who went cold,” Pullen said.
Smith, a clammer, said each time they got power back, they filled water buckets with fresh water just in case they lost power again.
They said they weren’t upset with the power company since they knew crews were working around the clock. The hardest part, though, was losing power 10 minutes into the New England Patriots football game on Sunday and not being able to take hot showers.
“We’ve gone without power before. But it was always just for a few hours, never days. After a while you get a little frustrated and bored,” Smith said.
Their pit bull, Ziggy, kept warm by snuggling up at the wood stove. Pullen said she was most concerned about her macaw, named Cuervo, which can’t handle temperatures below 65 degrees. The wood stove helped keep the house at least at that temperature.
The highlight of their week was getting power back for a few hours on Christmas Day.
“That was the best Christmas present we could have asked for,” Smith said.
Staff Writer Jessica Hall contributed to this report.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: