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After Isaias, a call to "take back our grid"

When the TV and the refrigerator fall silent, and the growl of generators and the whine of chain saws take their place, the clock starts ticking on the inconvenience and safety risks for public utility customers. As hours turn into days and frozen food turns to mush, their patience wears thin. It happened again this past summer.

About once a month since early August thousands and even hundreds of thousands of customers of Eversource, the multistate energy conglomerate that ate Northeast Utilities, have lost electric power. The lengthiest, largest outage followed the swift-moving Tropical Storm Isaias on Aug. 4. Upwards of 700,000 Eversource customers were without power for up to a week, including many in southeastern Connecticut. Customers of the smaller United Illuminating, serving the southwestern part of the state, were also affected in large numbers.

Connecticut legislators, whose seats are all contested in the Nov. 3 election, heard from their fed-up constituents. Connecticut residents have been through this before, following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Hurricane Irene in 2011, and for most of the state other than shoreline New London County, the suprise October snowstorm the same year.

In a special session Oct. 1, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the "Take Back Our Grid Act" and sent it to Gov. Ned Lamont, who quickly signed it. The law directs state utility regulators to begin work by 2022 on a performance-based system to determine rates for electricity distribution companies. It requires customers to be credited $25 per day and paid $250 in compensation for spoiled food and medicines when an outage lasts more than 96 hours — as Isaias' effects did in many areas. The bill potentially penalizes electric and gas utilities, if they fail to comply with requirements for preparedness or restoration of service, by raising the limit for civil penalties.

Legislators say the new law is just a step in a process to stabilize or lower electricity rates, which had gone up in July, and to put customers — ratepayers — higher in the utilities' priorities than they have been. Commercial utilities such as Eversource are publicly traded companies whose stockholders expect to see profits. But they are also public utilities, subject to state regulation on behalf of the ratepayers.

Consumers have always grumbled about the electric bill, and regulators have given at least a look at requested rate hikes, sometimes giving utilities less than requested. The timing of the most recent, fairly steep hike that went into effect this summer struck a nerve, however, coming as it did in the middle of the pandemic. Residential customers working at home were using electricity billable to them, rather than their employers' infrastructure. Students were logging on for classes from home rather than being at school in person. Increased usage met higher rates at an already tense time.

The many stories of inadequate response from the utility after Isaias was a tipping point for the governor, who ordered an investigation, and lawmakers, who have started reforms. A spokeswoman for Eversource told the Connecticut Mirror after passage of the Take Back Our Grid Act that performance-based regulation will benefit the utility's customers. In the run-up to the special session, however, with odd timing, Eversource asked the state to consider authorizing $700 million in bonded borrowing to cover the costs of the clean-up. Legislators were not immediately interested.

This is clearly just the first chapter in the post-Isaias scrutiny of Eversource. Similar outcries sparked similar investigations and reviews after the 2011 storms; if the utility's response to those wasn't enough to mitigate the impact the next time — this time — then it wasn't enough. Period.

The state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority is hearing calls to break up Eversource and even to consider a publicly owned state-based utility, as some states use. It's far too soon in the review process to decide what's best for the state and the ratepayers, but nothing should be off the table. The question is not whether there will another powerful storm, but when — and will the utilities be ready?

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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