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The Boston Globe

Business

Utilities speed up response to storm

The state’s largest utilities, heavily criticized for slow responses to major storms last year, appear to be repairing lines and restoring power at a faster pace as the state recovers from widespread damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

National Grid, for example, had by Tuesday evening restored electricity to roughly half of the 237,000 customers whose lights went out at the storm’s peak. In comparison, a day after a Halloween snowstorm belted New England last year, the utility had restored power to about 25 percent of customers who lost electricity. And after Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, it took two days to restore power to about half of the National Grid customers with outages.

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NStar has restored more than 70 percent of the 162,000 customers without power at Sandy’s peak and estimates that all its customers will have electricity by late Thursday. After Irene and the snowstorm, some customers were without power for five or six days.

“It seems like crews are out there. The real test will be in a few days,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley, who pushed to impose multimillion-dollar fines for subpar storm response last year. “How much power has been restored and what do we hear from our mayors, our police chiefs, our fire chiefs?”

Trouble spots have cropped up , but many municipal officials said they felt as if the utilities were handling Sandy better than last year’s storms.

“We’ve been working closely with NStar to improve services and communication to the people of Boston on both storm-related and other widespread outages,” Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. “Based on response results following yesterday’s storm, those efforts to collaborate have proven effective.”

Sandy hit the region in a weakened state and caused less damage than expected. Nearly 400,000 NStar and National Grid customers lost power at Sandy’s peak, compared with more than 560,000 during the worst of Tropical Storm Irene and 500,000 during the height of the October snowstorm.

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Utility officials said lessons learned from last year’s experiences helped speed response. For example, the companies are doing more to coordinate tree and line-repair crews. Last year, line crews would be sent to a location only to find fallen trees and other debris still blocking access to power lines.

The companies also worked harder to get information to customers and to communicate with municipalities, which each had a designated liaison.

In Norwell, where some residents were without electricity for as many as five days after last year’s major storms, power is coming back quickly, said Gregg McBride, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

Utilities also were helped by forecasts that predicted Sandy’s path days in advance, allowing them to make preparations about a week beforehand.

Not everyone was happy, however. In Weston, town manager Donna VanderClock said she has seen little of NStar, despite downed wires and tree limbs keeping schools closed and hampering emergency vehicles.

State Energy Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said Massachusetts officials will consider the experiences like Weston’s as well as Norwell’s when they review responses by utilities.

“The coordination of that restoration effort is the final, if you will, on which their grade is going to be assessed,” he said.

Globe correspondent Laura Finaldi contributed to this report. Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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