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For utilities, a new era, demands

In the wake of Irene, companies find that customers don’t want information outages

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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TJ Recupero’s aggravation mounts whenever he catches a glimpse of the next street over, where the lights in his neighbor’s home are burning brightly.

Recupero’s electricity went out Sunday, as the remnants of Hurricane Irene stormed through the region, and National Grid has said it may be tomorrow before he gets power back. The 44-year-old has been using his iPhone to check National Grid’s website and Twitter feed, as well as call, but said updates have been neither fast nor informative.

“Maybe 10 years ago I would have had no right to expect something more than darkness until it came back on again,’’ said Recupero, who has been using a gasoline-fed generator to run his refrigerator. “But it’s 2011, and I can get information from a thousand different sources. But I haven’t been able to get information on any of this.’’

In an era of instant access to the Net, social media, and mobile applications, people are more impatient than ever for information. That has presented a bigger challenge for utilities to satisfy customers hungry for information during an emergency that has taxed their staffs and resources. The state’s four investor-owned utilities have been using representatives assigned to specific communities, automated calls, staffed phone centers, websites, and social media to distribute information about damage and repairs to local officials and hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts customers left without electricity. As of yesterday afternoon, about 41,000 were still without power - about 32,000 National Grid customers, and 9,000 at NStar - from a peak of 800,000.

Penni Conner, vice president of customer care at NStar, said it takes time to identify the damage after a storm, but by the end of Monday - the day after the storm - the Boston utility was providing estimates of when power would be restored. “I know our customers don’t want to be in the dark figuratively or literally,’’ she said.

State officials, however, say the power companies have fallen short in communicating with customers.

“There is a frustration at the local level on the ground with the speed of information and the quality of information in terms of response times,’’ said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary, whose office oversees the Department of Public Utilities. “That’s really what we need to improve.’’

Charles Gray, executive director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said the scale of Irene’s damage is partly to blame for length of time to restore power. Typically after damaging storms, utilities call on crews from other companies in neighboring service areas and states.

But Irene wreaked havoc from South Carolina to Maine, making those extra crews, working to restore power to their own customers, unavailable. In Massachusetts, Irene knocked out at least 350 National Grid poles, and another 76 used by NStar. The two utilities are also working to replace or restring 118 miles of primary and secondary wires.

“It’s one of those kinds of storms that you just don’t recover from quickly,’’ Gray said.

Massachusetts utility officials said they’ve started pulling in crews from Colorado, Michigan, and even Canada. Each of the four utilities started putting out public service announcements about a week before the storm. The message: People should be prepared for some outages to last several days.

During the storm, NStar relied heavily on an automated phone system to answer an overwhelming number of calls from customers - 10,500 alone in a 30-minute period at the storm’s peak late Sunday afternoon. On a normal day, there might be 60 calls.

At National Grid, about 200 representatives working around the clock had fielded roughly 600,000 calls through yesterday morning. The utility has posted a map of outages with estimated repair times on its website. NStar has posted a similar list.

Utilities also shared this information through social media; companies say they’ve doubled their followers. Still, complaints have mounted.

“They want a shower, they want their coffee pot to work - I get it,’’ said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid’s operations in Massachusetts. “You can never communicate enough. I learn that, unfortunately, every time we do this.’’

Under a 2009 state law, utilities each year must submit emergency plans that include, among other things, provisions for a communications. Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who helped write the legislation, said the post-Irene response has left him wondering if the state should step in to direct utility restoration efforts.

“This is about recognizing that it’s a state obligation to make sure people are getting the power that they paid for,’’ he said.

Anne Bala, a Wrentham resident who finally got power back yesterday, said she gave up trying to phone National Grid when she couldn’t reach a live person. She tried the Internet, but didn’t find the company’s website or Twitter page that helpful.

“We are all grateful for the long hours that crews have put in to help the areas,’’ she said, “but understanding how decisions were made on who got power first would have gone a long way.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com or on Twitter @ailworth.