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Eversource investigations must lead to changes

How badly has Eversource mismanaged preparing for and responding to Tropical Storm Isaias? Let us count the ways.

Though the track of the storm and its likely intensity were forecast several days ahead of its arrival in Connecticut — a forecast that proved largely accurate — Eversource woefully miscalculated its impact and failed to marshal the resources necessary to effectively deal with the damage.

As required, Eversource filed a storm impact statement with state regulators Monday in advance of the storm. Its experts anticipated a “level 4” event — the lower the number, the severer the storm impact — with outages of between 10% and 29%, or a maximum of 380,000 customers.

Isaias left about 800,000 customers without power, roughly 65% of its customer base in the state.

“Obviously, they grossly missed the mark,” concluded Marissa Gillett, chair of the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, commonly known as PURA.

Eversource's automated reporting line was down during the storm Tuesday, leaving customers frustrated when they sought to report outages.

In the aftermath of the fast-moving tropical storm, local leaders reported frustration in trying to communicate with Eversource officials, with public works crews idled as they awaited assurances that lines were de-energized before clearing roads of fallen trees and limbs.

Add it all up and this was a major failure.

Most frustrating is that the same breakdowns were identified nearly a decade ago and were supposed to have been long ago corrected.

On Aug. 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene hit the state and about 800,000 utility customers lost power. It took line crews up to nine days to completely restore service. Six weeks later, a freak October snowstorm dumped up to 18 inches of snow on trees still heavy with autumn foliage, with a record 880,000 utility outages recorded. It took nearly two weeks to restore all power then.

Both state regulators and a special commission, the Two Storm Panel, assessed why the damage was so profound and took so long to repair.

Among its findings were inadequate storm preparation by the utility, lack of repair crews to deal with the magnitude of damage, and poor communication both with customers and with state and municipal officials, leading to inefficiency in restoring power.

When the next major natural disaster hit, Super Storm Sandy, on Oct. 12, 2012, the utility, which then operated as Connecticut Light & Power, received generally positive reviews for improving communication and its response.

But definitely not this time.

In 2015, CL&P was subsumed into Eversource Energy, which has grown into New England’s largest energy delivery company, serving 3.7 million electric and natural gas customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Clearly, bigger is not always better.

In the wake of its poor performance, there has been a bipartisan demand for investigations and reforms. We join in that demand.

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, who co-chairs the state's Energy and Technology Committee, vowed to get answers. Needleman is also Essex’s first selectman. Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme, the ranking Republican on the committee, joined in the call for accountability.

Gov. Ned Lamont demanded an investigation by PURA.

This is all well and good, but unless it leads to regulatory and law changes that assure Eversource meets it obligations, it could prove a meaningless exercise.

Using its regulatory authority, PURA must require adequate Eversource staffing to maintain the power grid. Eversource should also be required to have a plan, that PURA would have to approve, outlining how staffing would be beefed up to respond to future disasters.

Communication may have to be turned over to a subsidiary paid by Eversource to act as a conduit during emergencies between government officials, customers and the utility.

And the cost of these improvements cannot come at the expense of higher rates, already too high, which might mean extending PURA’s authority to limit executive compensation and payouts to shareholders. Eversource Chairman, President and CEO James J. Judge made $11 million in total compensation in 2019, according to proxy statements. Executive Vice President and CFO Philip J. Lembo and Executive Vice President and COO each pulled in $3.2 million.

One recommendation flowing from the 2011 storms that was followed was extensive tree trimming and removal. But Connecticut remains a well-treed state and folks like it that way. Power outages will happen, extensive ones in big storms. But that does not excuse lack of preparation, poor communication and inadequate response.

Eversource has to be made to get its act together before the real big one hits.

 

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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