CT Utility Companies Face Questions from Lawmakers Over Storm Response

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Five utility companies were on the agenda to speak before the Energy and Technology Committee Thursday, but most of the attention was on Eversource, which provides power for most of Connecticut and accounted for a majority of the outages after Tropical Storm Isaias earlier this month.

“I have heard so comments critical of Eversource and that the company is in need of drastic change,” acknowledged Eversource CEO Jim Judge.

Judge said complaints about his company’s performance and recent response to Tropical Storm Isaias are unfounded.

 “Last year was the best ever for reliability for our Connecticut customers, the best ever,” he said.  “I fully understand that our customers don’t think we’re doing a good job and I don’t know if that’s because of the price that’s being paid or whether it's legacy performance issues that go back decades but this is a highly performing company that’s performance-based and the metrics suggest that we’re doing a good jobs for our customers, and our shareholders, and our employees.”

Company officials pointed out that the damage created in Connecticut by Tropical Storm Isaias was worse than both Super Storm Sandy and Hurricane Irene with all 149 communities it serves suffering significant damage including 2,000 blocked roads, and 500 miles of downed wires.

“Yet we delivered a restoration that was faster than those storms,” Judge said.

Lawmakers grilled the Eversource executives on their response before, after, and during the storm.

“When my mayor reached out to me and said we still have 91 roads closed and no one is calling me back. He couldn’t get a response.  He couldn’t get a phone call back.  That’s a serious breakdown in communication,” said Rep. William Buckbee, R, New Milford.

The company drew criticism from both sides of the aisle.

“I did not hear from a first selectman that felt that communication was good, that they’re being listened to,” said Sen. Norm Needleman, D, Essex.

Lawmakers also focused on the company’s financial success and accused Eversource of putting its billions in profits before people.

“How come you haven’t made the move on your own to follow in the footsteps of ConEdison and provide avenues for people to receive financial claims for food and prescription medicine?" asked Rep. David Arconti, D, Danbury.

“Well over 90% of utilities across the country don’t pay for those when there is an act of God like we experienced here,” explained Judge.

West Haven Republican representative Charles Ferraro asked the company if it had plans to bury its power lines.  Eversource’s CEO responded that it would cost $50 billion to put their 25,000 miles of wires underground.  

Ferraro said the upfront cost could save customers down the line.

In the midst of major profits, the company’s request for rate hike went into effect right before the tropical storm.  The hike was approved by the state regulatory commission, PURA.

“If you’re making a billion or $2 billion in profit is it necessary to ask for a rate increase based on that,” asked Sen. Paul Formica, R, East Lyme.

Ferraro pointed out that Eversource’s residential customers only account for a third of the load and that its industrial customers should bear more of the burden.

“It does seem unfair to the residential customer.  I think if you’re going to increase the rates for homeowners many of whom are without work now some are furloughed, and if a rate increase is needed it needs to be fairly applied,” he said.

Arconti pointed out that through their bills, ratepayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make the electric grid more resilient and cut down trees susceptible to storms.

 “Their investments aren’t being spent wisely.  Shouldn’t we be experiencing less of these types of damages with the investments that we’re making,” he said.

“We’ve invested heavily over the last several years here in Connecticut. The results really show,” said Eversource’s Regional Electric Operations President Craig Hallstrom.

Arconti pointed out that the company’s plans called for upwards of 600 line crews to restore power in two to four days for the level four storm they predicted would hit Connecticut on Tuesday, August 4. 

“As of Wednesday of that week you had 450 line crews and 235 tree crews in Connecticut.  I think we have a difference of opinion whether your company was fully prepared for this event,” said Arconti.

By the time the storm hit, Eversource determined it would need 1,200 crews and upwards of 10 days to fully restore power.  Lawmakers complained that the company didn’t have enough boots on the ground ahead of time.

“When you have an event like Isaias, you’re never going to have enough people on property that just isn’t financially responsible, it’s just not realistic,” said Hallstrom.

Eversource executives spent five hours in the hot seat, followed by United Illuminating. More than 120,000 of its customers lose power along the shoreline in the aftermath of Isaias.

Though lawmakers praised their response in comparison to Eversource the comments weren't all positive.

 “The lack of ability to get through the phone, going online and seeing oh my neighbor, oh I’m supposed to have my power back on but I don’t,” said Rep Joe Gresko, D, Stratford.

Gov. Ned Lamont has called on all future rate hikes for utilities to be based on performance.

“We’re not opposed to performance based mechanisms to gauge our effectiveness.  We have a storm plan and we prepared to that plan, then we executed to that plan, and we ultimately delivered to that plan.  It would seem to me the sentiment right now is that’s not good enough,” said UI CEO Anthony Marone.

Dominion Energy, Norwich Public Utilities, and ISO-New England were also called to testify on Thursday. 

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