THE RESPONSE OF NIE TO THE STORM DAMAGE
28. There were three key elements to the process
of the restoration of supplies following the storm damage. These
of the scale and nature of the faults;
· repairing the faults in a way which
sought to minimise the duration of interruptions; and
· providing information to customers
about the likely timescale for the restoration of supplies.
29. Both the Regulator
and the Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for Electricity
have criticised aspects of NIE's response to the network damage.
Central to this was getting information about precisely who was
off supply, and where. Two specific difficulties arose:
· the volume
of calls to NIE's Helpline substantially overloaded the capacity
both of NIE to handle the calls and, at times, the capacity of
the telephone system to carry them;
· NIE could not provide accurate and
up-to-date information to many of those who did get through either
to NIE, or to the Message Link Facility.
30. Over the period 26 to 31 December, customers
made over 650,000 attempts to contact NIE on its 0345 Helpl
ine, over 300,000 of which were made on Boxing Day alone.
These levels of calls are substantially higher than those experienced
by PES in Great Britain.
In all, about 153,000 calls were responded to,
a level exceeded by only one G
reat Britain PES.
In response to experience of the Christmas 1997 storm, NIE had
increased its maximum capacity to handle calls by a factor of
three, to just over 1500 calls per hour and its maximum capacity
for call messaging to just over 8,400 calls per hour.
31. It is clear beyond doubt that the volume
of potential traffic was well beyond the capacity of NIE to handle
it. Similar capacity problems were faced by some PES in Great
Britain, notably Scottish Power. This situation creates a vicious
circle, where customers ring back repeatedly in an attempt to
obtain, or convey, useful information, thus increasing the volume
of calls and the likelihood that the system is overwhelmed.
32. We note that NIE plans to implement measures
to improve the information available to call handlers and to improve its media communications strategy. We welcome this.
It is clear that customers found performance in this respect in
relation to the Boxing Day storms lamentable, a fact which NIE,
to its credit, frankly admits. As we recognise that it will never
be possible for the system to handle this level of calls, the
priority should be to seek to minimise the need for customers
to call to obtain information, so that as many lines as possible
free for customers seeking to convey information about supply failures, which can only help to plan the reconnection process.
To that end, we recommend that the comprehensive media communications
strategy in the event of a major disruption to electricity supplies
should be designed so as to minimise the need for queries about
reconnection times, etc. We also recommend that the NIE should
publicise widely its plans for providing information in such circumstances,
perhaps by periodically including an approp
riate insert in account mailings.
33. We sought written evidence from British
Telecommunications plc (BT) and from the Office of Telecommunications
(OFTEL) on the resilience of the telephone system in Northern
Ireland to the burdens placed on it by this emergency. OFTEL's
is that BT's handling of the high levels of traffic was an appropriate
response to preserve network integrity and that substantial reinforcement
of the BT network in Nort
hern Ireland is unnecessary.
OFTEL was concerned, though, about BT's response to an apparent
intermittent fault on the message facility.
34. BT, for its part, drew attention to the
very substantial level of calls it was able to deliver to the
NIE Helpline number,
but conceded that this volume of traffic could only be handled
because it was a holiday weekend during which there was little
other commercial traffic to 0345 numbers. BT's evidence also revealed
that there was in fact no fault on the message facility: the problem
arose because there was apparently no independent means of communication
for NIE personnel to update the message.
35. As a direct result of this incident, BT
is working with NIE to investigate and agree how they can work
together to improve their call answering facilities. This may
include additional contingency call answering back-up capacity
which can assist NIE during periods of heavy demand and review
of the design of Message Link access facilities to provide priority
access for message updates during periods of high call volumes.
36. We also believe that BT should itself
review the operating arrangements for its 0345 numbers. Its evidence
reveals a substantial apparent weakness in the Message Link service
in that NIE could not update its own messages. This was not due
to a fault, as originally thought; it was due to an inherent design
problem in the service. Inaccurate and out of date messages were
one of the complaints of customers who did get through to the
Link. BT should provide dedicated updating lines as a matter of
urgency. There would also appear to be a case for BT to review
the overall level of capacity on the national 0345 platform: it
appears fortunate that the bulk of the burden from the storm fell
on a holiday weekend when there was little other traffic to these
numbers. This was pure chance.
37. As to the process of restoring supplies,
the storm report contains a detailed account by NIE of the steps
it took. The Consultative Committee maintained that NIE had initially
ated the number of customers affected by the storm, and NIE has conceded that this was indeed the case.
Mr Coulthard, of OFREG,
considered that NIE
were initially slow and disorganised in their response, possibly
as a result of underestimating the likely duration of the storm.
As to NIE's approach to restoring supplies, working down from
the highest voltages, Mr Thomas, giving evidence on behalf of
OFREG, agreed that "to a large extent it
is the only practical way of doing it."
38. It is clear that NIE field staff faced
many difficult challenges in restoring electricity supplies on
December 26 and subsequently. Not only was there substantial damage
to the electricity network, the storm had also damaged NIE's private
communications networks. Continued
adverse weather hampered repair teams in the field who were undertaking damage assessment and restoration work against a background of continuing damage caused by the weather.
We pay tribute to the dedication and skill of the field staff
in particular, who worked throughout the period 26 to 31 December,
often in atrocious weather conditions, to restore supplies to
39. NIE proposes to implement the main conclusions
of its review with the target of having further substantia
l improvements in performance capability in place for this coming autumn and winter and agreed programmes of investment already under way and in place for medium term development of the network.
It will be looking at the potential for further improvement beyond
the initial recommendations in its report.
This will include consideration of the introduction of new technology
and systems-based solutions to provide further significant enhancements
in call-handling capacity, where the improvements c
urrently proposed are based on existing technology and systems.
NIE also proposes to seek to draw on the experience of other utilities,
including US utilities who deal with hurricane conditions on a
40. As a result of the measures to be put in
hand, NIE aims to provide:
· an expanded
emergency call-handling capability and improved systems which
will enable a greater number of customers to make the vital initial
contact earlier to report their own off-supply situation;
· a much improved (two hourly) public
broadcast providing customers with regular accurate information
updates on damage assessment and the process of restoration;
· a more extensive database on its
customer care register, to enable NIE better to identify customers
with special needs, such as a dependence on electricity for equipment
for medical support;
· a greatly strengthened network of
contingency communications which ensures that public representatives,
other key service providers, voluntary organisations, etc, are
kept informed on the damage assessment and restoration processes
and are able to respond to the needs of individual customers and
customer groups with special needs;
· an incremental improvement to its
damage assessment and restoration processes so that, as far as
possible, the length of time any customer is off-supply is reduced
to the minimum consistent with priorities in restoration and the
41. To achieve this, NIE is taking immediate
· to spend
£2 million on increasing its communications capacity and
on technology to enhance its call-handling capability;
· to accelerate the £12 million
planned investment in Customer Service and IT programmes, including
the new Trouble Management System, which will enable information
to be obtained and distributed to customers and the media more
· to step up its tree-pruning programme
significantly, with the co-operation of landowners, in view of
the fact that falling trees and branches caused nearly 25% of
faults during the storm and contributed disproportionately to
faults on the low voltage network, i.e., the final delivery of
electricity to customers' premises;
· to host an inter-agency forum to
enable utility providers and government agencies to develop and
co-ordinate plans to respond effectively to emergency situations.
42. NIE also proposes to reallocate £24
million of capital expenditure into an accelerated programme of
network refurbishment with a view to improving network resilience
to storms. We consider this in more detail later in this Report.
This will include increased undergrounding of low voltage supplies
(albeit at the expense of a reduction in the high voltage undergrounding
programme). NIE took a policy decision some years ago that all
new low voltage supplies would
be by underground cable,
so the result will be a reduction in the extent of the overhead
low voltage network.
43. There has been a general welcome for the
compensation proposals ultimately made by NIE. The cost of the
compensation, and all other uninsured costs of repairs, will be
borne by shareholders under the current price controls.
According to the Regulator,
no customer will receive less than they would have received under
the Guaranteed Standards (which do not apply to weather-related
interruptions) and many will receive more. In comparison to t
he annual average domestic bill, the value of the compensation payments in the worst case will be the equivalent of more than a year's electricity supply.
44. The cost of NIE's compensation proposals
was originally put at about £5.5 million but has now risen
to £9.5 million. In addition to making payments to c
ustomers who were off-supply for longer than 24 hours, as originally announced, NIE has made a further 16,000 goodwill payments to customers who suffered low voltage or where representations were made that the duration of interruption was so close to the 24 hour threshold as to merit a payment.
In all, 81,000 goodwill payments (as of 6 July) have been made
to date: NIE expects this to be close to the final figure.
45. OFFER has published details of the payments
made by PES to customers in Great Britain who lost their supplies
as a result of the storms.
From this, it is clear that NIE made more payments than any of
the PES by a substantial margin, and that the average value, at
about £117, was also greater than the a
verage payments made by any of those PES.
By contrast, no compensation is payable in the Republic of Ireland
under such circumstances: the commitment on the part of ESB is
to do "everything possible to restore supply as soon as possible."
41 Q88, 90. Back
42 Appendix 2, p. 69 and Appendix 20, p. 85. Back
43 See Appendix 14, p. 78 and NIE storm report, p. 21. Back
44 OFFER Report, p. 37. Back
45 Calls handled by the BT Message Link service; see NIE storm report, p. 21. The Consumer Committee stated that 13,650 consumers' calls were dealt with by NIE Call Centre staff; see Appendix 20, p. 85. Back
46 For comparative data for Great Britain PES, see OFFER Report, p. 39. Back
47 Appendix 12, p. 76-7. Back
48 Appendix 14, p. 79. Back
49 The Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas. Back
50 Q 88-90. Back
51 Q94. Back
52 Ev. p. 8. Back
53 Ev. p 8-9. Back
54 Ev. p. 9. Back
55 See paragraph 54 and Appendix 27, p. 109. Back
56 See Q55 and Appendix 21, p. 102. Back
57 See NIE storm report, p. 33. Back
58 Appendix 21, p. 87. See also Appendix 22, p. 103. Back
59 Ev. p. 40 Back
60 Net of VAT. Back
61 Appendix 33, p. 119. Back
62 Supply interruptions following the Boxing Day storms 1998. OFFER, May 1999, Table 13. Back
63 These were typically in the range of £79 to £91, and the overall average was £88. Back
64 Appendix 19, p. 84. Back