Utilities, sugarmakers grapple with cost of storms - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Utilities, sugarmakers grapple with cost of storms

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JOHNSON, Vt. -

Inside Vermont Electric Co-op in Johnson, employees are glued to screens, monitoring the grid and the weather.

Nine days ago a series of storms began knocking out power. Since then, the typical customer -- of which there are 34,000 -- has lost and regained electricity -- twice. "There's nobody who has been out of power that entire time," said VEC's CEO, David Hallquist.

Hallquist said every morning workers wake up to more outages as trees splinter and fall under the weight of ice and snow. At points, the Co-op deployed 12 times its usual staff to keep up. The repair bill is nearly $7million and rising. "We expect to get about 75-percent of this reimbursed; however, if we didn't get it reimbursed it would be about 8-percent rates on a one-year basis," Hallquist said.

Federal assessors will survey damage Thursday or Friday. But regardless of what they find, Green Mountain Power won't see a dime to cover its $4 million dollar cleanup cost. That's because the private company isn't eligible for public emergency management funds like the co-op.

As a result of this storm and others, GMP rate-payers will see monthly bills grow by a little less than 1.5 percent over the year.  Company spokespeople say that translates into about $1.53/month for most. "The good news is there are other costs that fluctuate for the first quarter of next year. We have a power supply adjuster that will pretty much offset the storm charge, so there will be very little effect on customers for the first quarter of next year," said GMP's Dotty Schnure.

The storm could also force maple sugar producers to tap out -- damage to sap lines is still unknown. Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association officials are asking producers to report their experiences. "Really going to be a month or two as they get out in the woods and start to clean things up and then they'll really get a sense of how much they can get back online," said the Association's Executive Director Matt Gordon.

Insurance policies are unlikely to cover damage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to help, but the extent is unclear.  Outage numbers are improving again, but the forecast is also up in the air and another storm could melt away gains and margins. When a warm spell does eventually arrive, that could also mean outages as bent trees spring back up and into wires, but spokespeople say that's generally a much easier and fast fix.

Both GMP and VEC officials say they budget for storm repairs every year but nothing like this. Some say given the growing strength of storms in the area, the industry may need to consider expanding tree-trimming operations to create more space between trees and power lines.

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