State Rails At outages; Eversource Estimated Far Too Low
CT Post, August 7, 2020
By Kaitlyn Krassett
State leaders slammed Eversource Energy as Tropical Storm Isaias left an estimated 800,000 of the company’s customers without power in Connecticut, with little indication of when most would be restored.
Gov. Ned Lamont declared a civil preparedness emergency and called on the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to investigate the two main Connecticut power companies’ respondes to the storm.
Lamont, following a 40-minute meeting with Eversource CEO James Judge on Wednesday afternoon, ripped the company for insufficient urgency in restoring power to Connecticut residents. Lamont has also asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a presidential emergency declaration in response to the storm.
“Several years ago, Connecticut experienced large scale outages that took days to recover from, and we were told that the utilities were improving their resources so that they can be prepared for the next time Mother Nature inevitably hits again,” Lamont said. “And now here we are, with a wholly inadequate response to another storm.”
Eversource said it had restored more than 200,000 customers by late Wednesday afternoon. But state records show the company far underestimated the damage in documents filed Monday. The smaller United Illuminating Co. had at one point more than 100,000 customers without power, a number that dipped just below 90,000 by early Wednesday evening. UI serves Bridgeport and New Haven among other communities.
The governor said he was requesting the PURA probe “so that we can determine whether the companies are meeting their legal obligations and whether any penalties need to be applied. The people of Connecticut deserve better than the service they are receiving.” Eversource said Wednesday that crews have worked around the clock since Tuesday to restore power while adhering to strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The company anticipates full restoration will take multiple days.
By Wednesday morning, Isaias power outages exceeded those of the 2012 Superstorm Sandy, at more than 800,000 statewide among Eversource customers — although the company did not give an exact figure. That dipped to about 612,000 by early evening, amounting to close to one of every two Eversource customers in Connecticut.
Anger over the large number of outages is especially acute since most people remember the devastating storms of 2011 and 2012 — Tropical Storm Irene, the October 2011 snowstorm, and Superstorm Sandy. After those storms, Eversource and United Illuminating spent hundreds of millions of dollars of ratepayer money making the state’s electric system more resilient against weather. “The impact from this storm, in terms of power outages, is greater than Superstorm Sandy,” said Michael Hayhurst, Eversource Vice President of Electric Operations in Connecticut. “We recognize how difficult it is to be without electricity, especially while many people continue working from home during the pandemic. Our crews will continue working until every customer has power back while also complying with stringent pandemic protocols.”
Isaias toppled trees Tuesday, wiping out power lines and leaving more than 90 percent of homes without power in many towns, particularly along the shoreline. But wind speeds were relatively low compared to other storms that have reached Connecticut in the past, calling into question the vulnerability of Connecticut’s power grid.
“This was barely a tropical storm and we have a nightmarish outage. What would have happened if we had a 100 mph storm?” said state Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, chairman of the legislature's Energy and Technology Committee.
A top company official defended the Eversource performance at a briefing at Eversource’s Berlin operations center late Wednesday. “There’s no utility in the country that would staff to handle this magnitude of storm,” said Craig Hallstrom, president of electric operations.
Asked whether Eversource had an estimate of the number of outages that would result from the storm, Hallstrom said, “We did not.” But the company did, in fact, file an estimate with state regulators Monday. Both companies filed a “pre-staging briefing sheet” with the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, said Marissa Gillett, the agency chair. United Illuminating estimated correctly. UI projected a “level 3 event,” corresponding to 30 percent to 50 percent outages, Gillett said, and outperformed that level. Eversource filed an estimation of a “level 4 event,” with outages for between 10 percent and 29 percent of customers — a maximum of 380,000 customers, far lower than what happened. “Obviously they grossly missed the mark,” Gillett said.
A group of town leaders from Killingworth, Chester and Deep River said their towns all had more than 98 percent of homes still without power as of Wednesday afternoon. Deep River First Selectman Angus McDonald and Killingworth First Selectwoman Cathy Iino both said they had not seen an Eversource truck in their towns at all, despite several reports of dead end roads blocked by trees with people trapped on the other side.
“We seem to be on a repeat pattern with our public utilities where we have a storm, we talk about lessons learned, we decide what we’re going to do next time and then, next time, it’s as bad or worse,” said Chester First Selectwoman Lauren Gister. “When we have a situation like this… we need to sit down and find out what went wrong and what’s required to fix it. Then, we need to actually fix it. This is not fair to the citizens and residents of my town or the state of Connecticut.”
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said Eversource has had “almost zero communication” with him over when people should expect their power back. Midway through the afternoon, Danbury had the highest number of outages with about 17,775 homes and businesses blacked out. The company was supposed to come Wednesday to assess damage, but by around 4:15 p.m. Boughton had not seen any crews.
“This is by far the worst response that I’ve ever seen from this organization ever,” he said. “Given the way people’s electric bills skyrocketed in July, these people ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
Eversource has been under fire in recent days over skyrocketing bills, which the company said were largely the result of higher usage by homebound families in a hot summer. Generation rates, the largest portion of a typical customer’s bill, fell on July 1 but some other charges increased.
Investigation commences back to top
A bipartisan coalition of legislators persuaded PURA to suspend the rate increases associated with the Eversource delivery charge that went into effect on July 1 and launch an investigation.
Wednesday’s request for regulators to launch an investigation came as the governor said he was dissatisfied with the company’s response. “I want to hear a lot more urgency,” he said.
Judge, the Eversource CEO, did not emerge from the Eversource office to join Lamont and Hallstrom, the electric operations chief.
United Illuminating reported having about 116,000 reported outages Tuesday night in its territories in the New Haven and Bridgeport areas, with Fairfield and Shelton hit hardest with 13,000 and 11,000 outages respectively.
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim said UI told him they not be “providing estimated time of restorations,” for the city of Bridgeport, where there are more than 7,000 outages, and that the company does not “prioritize our restorations based on health.” State Sen. Paul Formica, a ranking Republican on the Energy and Technology Committee, was still without power and cleaning up fallen shingles from his home in East Lyme almost 24 hours after the storm hit. He said there appeared to be more outages than were caused by the storms in 2011 and 2012, with slower response times.
“They certainly spent millions of dollars of ratepayer money on weekly maintenance of tree cutting and pruning,” Formica said. “They were out week after week, year after year doing that and certainly it doesn’t seem they were effective in that effort.”
“Coming on the heels of the attempted large rate hike that they asked for a few weeks ago, I think people are rightfully disappointed in their response,” Formica said of Eversource. “They seem to care more about their profits than things they’re doing on the street here. But it is a difficult job, there’s a lot of power outages because of trees and you try to give people the benefit of the doubt but in this case it’s getting harder and harder.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy criticized Eversource on Twitter: “Right now hundreds of thousands of people in Connecticut don't have power and the response from Eversource has been wholly insufficient. Please stay safe, report all outages and treat all downed wires as live and dangerous,” he wrote.
Needleman, who is also the first selectman in Essex where the manufacturing business he owns uses more than $1 million in energy annually, introduced legislation during his first term as a senator that would have required Eversource to increase the size of its work crews — particularly linemen — rather than rely on out-of-state contractors, and Needleman has long been critical of Eversource’s rate hikes.
“My question is, where has all that money gone? What did customers get for their investment in Eversource? Why isn’t Eversource investing in and hiring new linemen? We've got nearly three-quarters of a million people without power in Connecticut today — including nearly all of Essex — which is about the same number of people who lost power during that devastating ice storm in April 2011,” Needleman said. “It seems very little has changed with Eversource over the past decade, now matter how much money consumers throw at them.”
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, who also serves on the Energy and Technology Committee, criticized Eversource’s reporting infrastructure for outages, which was down shortly after the storm swept through Connecticut.
“At the end of the day what everybody wants is a reliable, affordable electricity infrastructure and we need to do what it takes to make sure that it is the case,” Cheeseman said. “And if we continue to see both rate increases and perhaps not the best response to storms, I think everyone is entitled to real answers. Especially the ratepayers.”
The money spent on girding the system, much of it accelerated tree trimming and protecting substations against flooding, has improved regular operations of the utilities, said the acting chief of the state agency that represents ratepayers.
“They adopted a lot of what people initially proposed back in 2012 [and] 2013,” said Rich Sobolewski, acting head of the Office of Consumer Counsel. “No one’s saying, ‘you should be doing this instead of that.’ So much of it was changing the wire, getting rid of old poles. You’ve also had the flip side of that where people have said, ‘You’re doing too much tree trimming.’”