EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Squirrels and other critters have caused about 20,000 power outages annually in recent years, but that is just a flicker in the total that has risen steadily over the past decade.
Roy and Shirley Emerson have lived in their East Providence home for nearly 40 years and are among the many in the region who do not need stats to know their homes are left in the dark more often.
“We never lost power,” Shirley said during an interview at her home, as a light mist fell in her backyard. “But we had to buy a generator because it happened so often.”
The need for flashlights and a back-up power supply started with a nasty Nor’easter about three years ago.
“It was out for three day and it was so cold,” she recalled. “The first two nights we stayed here and just bundled up, but the third night Roy said, ‘I’ve had it. Let’s go to a hotel.’ We lost a lot of food. When in doubt, throw it out.”
The Emersons are not the only ones who have had it judging by a load of emails received by Target 12 after a question about power problems was posted on social media.
Lincoln’s Jane White lamented brighter times when she lived in Massachusetts.
“I lived in North Attleboro for 30 years and I lost my power only about eight times,” White said. “I’ve lived in Lincoln only five years, and already I’ve lost my power about twice as many times.”
White was one of several from Lincoln who said their power goes out too frequently.
The stats back up the memories of the frustrated customers.
National Grid’s annual report with the Public Utilities Commission indicates deteriorated equipment and trees have been the top two outage causes every year since 2008. During that time, fiscal year 2019 was the worst, with 518,674 outages.
Major events such as storm-churned, widespread outages are not part of those totals. When you add in those outages, the numbers spike higher. In 2019 for example there were an estimated 180,000 caused by storms.
On a warm fall day, a National Grid vegetation management team was out in northern Rhode Island taking down a 60-year old tree that had grown too close to power lines.
In its filing with the PUC, the utility company reported spending an average of $10 million a year over the past decade trimming trees away from the wire with each mile checked every four years.
National Grid Director of Communications Ted Kresse said about $500 million has been spent over the past five years on system improvements such as replacing poles and transformers and upgrading the lines and substations.
“We have a reliability committee that meets regularly, looks at some of those feeders and decides if they’re troublesome,” Kresse said. “We go out and see if there’s tree trimming or maybe there’s issues with the infrastructure that need to be upgraded.”
The weather pattern has also had an impact.
In 2016, there were four storms and four significant outages, but the totals have trended up since then with more of both each year.
With two months left in 2020, five distinct storms and six significant outages have darkened the area.
National Grid’s Lead Forestry Supervisor Chris Rooney said storms with less warning, or more wind or rain than expected, are far more difficult to prepare for in the days before the weather hits.
“Those are the challenges because sometimes we have to go out of state for crews,” Rooney said. “So, gearing up for those types of events are tougher because they’re not on the radar screen that far out.”
State Rep. Robert Quattrocchi, a Republican who serves Western Cranston and tree-shrouded Scituate, is among the lawmakers who have heard the complaints.
“The real frustration for myself and others is that the rates keep rising and we want a bang for our buck,” Quattrocchi said. “So, it begins there.”
State Rep. Joseph Solomon Junior, a Warwick Democrat, recalls blocks of his district going dark in several storms over his time in office.
“Every time National Grid goes in for a rate hike before the Public Utilities Commission,” Solomon said. “It has us all scratching our head.”
Solomon has submitted a bill that would force the utility company to bury transmission lines within any area that loses power for 96 consecutive hours or more. The law states the change would have to made within two years of the outage.
“I think four days is fair. Think about the cost to residents in food lost in refrigerators and freezers,” Solomon said. “I would want to see that what the public pays for their utility bills is being reinvested for their infrastructure.”
But East Providence resident Judy Corain offered an example of how underground power lines may not solve problems if part of the grid is above ground.
“I live on a street with underground utilities,” Corain said. “Usually, we are told it was caused by a transformer blowing.”
National Gird and other utility companies are regulated by the PUC. The agency’s Associate Administrator Tom Kogut said the Commission is legally required to make sure the utility service is “economical and efficient.”
“In most cases, these regulatory decisions also include cost-effectiveness,” Kogut said. “There’s a significant focus on the cost of programs like vegetation management, and the benefit of mediating potential costs to customers caused by outages.”