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Utility companies up their game for Sandy

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, investor-owned utilities appear to be cutting the excuses and putting greater energy into restoring both electric power and the confidence of customers. It’s a welcome change from last year’s storms, after which the state’s two major power companies — NStar and National Grid — racked up millions of dollars in fines for their lengthy outages and poor efforts at communicating with rate payers.

David L. Ryan/Globe staff

A fellen tree rested on power lines in Dartmouth Monday.

This time around, Governor Patrick made the point sharply — and directly into the ears of the utilities’ CEOs — that the state wouldn’t settle for subpar performance. The message seemed to get through, prompting the utilities to mobilize extra crews and reach out to their customers. Still, at the height of the storm, about 370,000 customers, including households and businesses served by Unitil and Western Massachusetts Electric, lost power. Yet by late afternoon Tuesday, that number had been cut roughly in half.

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Being without power is frustrating enough. But being left in the dark figuratively by uncommunicative utility companies is enraging. NStar absorbed that lesson well. Customers who reported outages praised Nstar’s cellphone updates, which included estimates of when their power might be restored.

Utility companies are helpless in the face of high winds that uproot and launch trees onto power lines. But some outages could have been avoided by better maintenance, such as smarter trimming of tree branches, and equipment upgrades. It’s obvious that the utilities upped their game for Hurricane Sandy. But by how much won’t be known for some time yet.

Hurricane Sandy also offered lessons about the superior performance of some of the state’s small, municipally-owned electric companies. The so-called “munis” are fanatical on the subject of preventive maintenance and make clever use of mutual aid. It’s not an accident that residents in seaside communities hit hard by the storm either eluded outages or rebounded quickly. Hull, for example, reported no significant outages. And the roughly 200 Marblehead customers who lost power saw it restored by midnight on Monday.

The storm went better than it might have. So far, the same seems to hold true for the performance of the utility companies.

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