Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Tim Leeds 

PSC sets meeting on power outage


October 20, 2017

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

A broken power line drapes over a pickup truck parked in Havre Oct. 3. The Public Service Commission is having a meeting in Havre Oct. 30 to discuss how NorthWestern Energy handled the damage from the recordbreaking storm that put 9,500 of its customers without power, some for more than a week.

Following one of the largest power outages in the state possibly for decades, the Public Service Commission wants to know what people think of NorthWestern Energy's response to the outage and has a meeting set in Havre Oct. 30 to find out.

Commissioner Travis Kavulla, whose district includes the power outage - which ran from Chester to Malta, lasting more than a week for some people - said this morning the commission wants to know how people think NorthWestern responded while it is still fresh in their minds.

"We don't have a view at this moment where NorthWestern did a good, above average, average, or poor job," he said.

Kavulla said the commission has heard anecdotes that raise some concerns, such as NorthWestern originally telling people not to call to report the outage because it had workers on it, then reversing itself later and asking people to call so the company knew who still was without power, and people have asked why they saw their neighbors have electricity restored while they still were without.

He said it also raises questions on equipment - Hill County Electric Cooperative meters send a message when they are off the grid, and maybe NorthWestern needs to invest in that kind of item.

He added that people in the region seem to be remarkably tolerant - few seemed to be terribly upset and complaining about the outage.

"The Hi-Line deserves credit for people's natural hardiness," Kavulla said, adding that the PSC still wants to hear a postmortem on what people think NorthWestern did right, did wrong and what could be improved to handle the next power outage.

He said the meeting, set to run from noon to 2 p.m. in Havre City Hall, will start with a presentation by NorthWestern and then be opened to questions and comments from the audience, with NorthWestern having a chance to respond.

Kavulla said he and members of his staff also will likely have questions for the company.

NorthWestern spokesman Butch Larcombe said Thursday that the outage was the largest storm event the company has dealt with in Montana for many years.

Larcombe said a little more than 9,500 customers - homes and businesses - were affected at the peak of the disruption.

"Obviously, the number of people affected by the outage was much greater than that," he added.

He said the outage stretched from Chester to Malta, although the greatest number of people impacted were in Havre.

Larcombe said the people west of Havre were restored relatively quickly. The longest outages mostly were in rural areas between Chinook and Dodson.

NorthWestern restored service to more than half of the customers Tuesday, Oct. 3. The last "human" customers were back in service at about mid-morning Thursday, Oct. 12.

He said Thursday that some other customers/meters - such as irrigation pumps - remain out of power and will be restored as crew time allows.

"We are working to communicate with those affected by this last phase of restoration work," Larcombe said.

Larcombe said the storm put more than 400 poles on the ground due to wind and snow and ice-buildup on lines.

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

A broken tree limb hangs on a power line in Havre Oct. 3.

"All told, our crews worked to repair more than 2,000 poles damaged in some fashion by the storm," he said. "Many of these poles were in very rural areas and had to be repaired before we could restore service to some customers. We essentially rebuilt many miles of line in areas east of Havre and across Blaine County."

Larcombe said NorthWestern brought in crews from each of its other Montana divisions, which are in Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Butte and Missoula, to work with crews based out of Havre and elsewhere in the region. NorthWestern also brought in several contract crews to help with restoration work and brought in several tree-trimming crews to help with trees and tree branches that had fallen into lines in many areas, including Havre.

"All told, we had more than 100 people working to restore service," he said. "Many of the field crews worked from about 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m."

Larcombe said the company expects the cost of repairing the damage caused by the storm to top $2 million.


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