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Unitil's plan helped it respond to outages caused by Isaias

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I've been a business journalist since 1985 when I received an MBA from Penn State. I covered energy, technology, and venture capital for The Philadelphia Business Journal from 1998 through 2013....

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  • Sep 30, 2020

Like Hannibal Smith on “The A-Team,” utilities love it when a plan comes together, especially if it’s their plan for restoring power quickly after a major storm.

Unitil had its plan come together after Tropical Storm Isaias barreled through its territory last month, and that enabled the electric-and-gas utility to escape the criticism fielded by utilities in New York and Connecticut.

Unitil, which primarily serves New Hampshire’s coastal region and capitol, but also has customers in Massachusetts and Maine, lost power to roughly 7,700 of its 106,000 customers the night Isaias struck, but was able to restore service to most of them the next day, Alec O’Meara, its media relations manager told me.

One reason was that the scale of damage to Unitil’s grid was relatively small. Eversource, a much bigger utility that is under fire for its response to Isaias in Connecticut, lost power to more than 55,000 customers in New Hampshire alone.

Another factor, however, was that even with the pandemic, Isaias didn’t throw Unitil anything it wasn’t ready for. The company annually holds drills that simulate systemwide events on each of its networks.

“We try and come up with all sorts of nasty stuff so that we’re ready in the event something happens here in the real world,” O’Meara said.

In 2020, there’s a pandemic happening in the real world, so Unitil had to take that into account. In March, it moved its customer-service representatives out of its call center to their homes and set up a system that enables it to quickly put them to work in case of an emergency. Additionally, because it realized that the pandemic might thin the ranks of its own field crews and limit the amount of help it can get from other utilities in its restoration efforts, it added some third-party crews on a permanent basis. That, O’Meara said, helped it respond not only to Isaias, but to a storm that struck its territory around Easter.

Unitil also had a plan for ensuring that it could keep its view of outages on its grid current and accurate and communicate current and accurate outage information to its customers.

The utility takes outage reports from customers through its website, calls to its service representatives and calls to an automated phone system. It also monitors Facebook and Twitter to see if customers are mentioning outages there, and, if they are, asks them to report the outages by phone or through its website. Additionally, it has advanced metering infrastructure, although it corroborates the outage information it gets from that with outage reports from customers.

To make sure it can keep up with the amount of information coming in from its customers, Unitil has a third-party call service it can use to temporarily bolster its own staffers. It also can add people to monitor its social media accounts, which are usually monitored by one person during normal business hours. 

All the outage information received by Unitil goes into the utility’s outage management system. On a normal day, O’Meara said, the OMS can pinpoint where the outages are and display them on the company’s outage map. During a severe storm, however, as the volume of reports grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for the OMS to precisely locate each outage. As a result, he said, when Unitil is convinced that a big storm is coming, it has damage assessors on hand.

“Their role is to effectively bird dog the [outage management] system,” O’Meara said, “to see physically in the field what is going on out there.”

When Isaias struck, they did that according to plan.


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