By Varistor60, CC BY-SA 4.0

As Eversource and United Illuminating Struggle, Smaller Utilities Across Connecticut Shine in Storm Response

Municipal electric utilities with small and compact customer bases — like Norwich Public Utilities and Town of Wallingford Electric Division — have made quick progress restoring power to customers after Tropical Storm Isaias even as hundreds of thousands of customers of Eversource and United Illuminating remain without power on Thursday night.

By the end of Wednesday night, Norwich Public Utilities had restored power to 5,500 of the 6,500 affected customers. The utility expects that 99 percent of its customers will have power by the end of Thursday, just two days after about a third of Norwich’s 20,000 customers lost power.

As of Riley’s latest update at 3 p.m. on Thursday, the utility was on track to have power restored by the end of the day to all but 200 customers.

According to a Monday news release, the utility prepared for the storm over the weekend, making sure workers, vehicles and equipment were ready, and by contracting with a tree crew to standby. Spokesman Chris Riley said that they were able respond as soon as the storm passed. 

“We hope that by 8:30, 9 o’clock, we’ll be at 99 percent, and tomorrow we should have it all cleaned up,” Riley said.

The Town of Wallingford Electric Division serves about 25,000 customers in Wallingford and the Northford section of North Branford. About 4,000 Wallingford electric customers lost power Tuesday, said Director of Public Utilities Richard Hendershot. As of 11 a.m. Thursday, he said that the town’s system showed 679 customers without power.

Wallingford and Norwich are two of six municipal electric providers in Connecticut, including two in Norwalk, Jewett City, and Groton Utilities, which includes Bozrah Light and Power. Most of the state is served by two for-profit companies, Eversource and United Illuminating.

Eversource, which serves over 1.2 million customers across Connecticut has become a particular target of criticism from customers, regulators and lawmakers, as some customers expect to wait several days or longer before company crews can restore power.

But representatives of two municipal electric providers told CT Examiner on Thursday that their response can’t be compared to Eversource because they are different kinds of providers working on completely different scales.

Riley, who worked for Eversource before Norwich, said the scale that Eversource is working on is “unfathomable” to the Norwich utility.

“They’re dealing with challenges that we deal with, but exponentially, and it’s in some ways not a fair comparison because of the scale of things,” Riley said.

Even the structure of Norwich, as a municipal utility, is completely different than for-profit providers, said Riley. Norwich Public Utilities’ general manager works with a city council-appointed board of commissioners that holds public meetings every month, rather than reporting to shareholders.

Hendershot agreed that Eversource was a different organization with a different set of responsibilities. Eversource has to consider the entire state, including larger cities, rural areas and everything in between, he said.

“Our overall service area is much smaller,” Hendershot said. “One and a third towns, versus dozens and dozens.”

The scale means that logistics are less complicated for the Norwich utility than for Eversource, said Riley. Norwich could use one parking lot to get its crews organized, while Eversource has crews spread all across Connecticut. A group of about a dozen people can easily meet outside to discuss updates every two hours, while the same meeting for Eversource means 60 people on a Zoom call, Riley said.

The Norwich utility is largely staffed by Norwich residents, and many line workers have been around for a long time, some since before Hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, Riley said.

According to Riley, the local understanding helps with storm response because they’ve seen it before, and they know the town’s geography and the utility’s system.

The smaller scope also helps with customer relations, said Riley. The utility has released detailed updates several times a day since Tuesday afternoon. Those updates explained exactly where crews were working to restore power and the utility’s goals for getting restoring power. 

Riley said that he’s had a few salty calls from customers and he understands that people are frustrated that they’ve been without power for over a day and a half, but because Norwich has so many fewer customers, it’s much easier to keep people updated.

Riley said that he takes notes at meetings, reviews what he wants to say with the general manager, and does it, without layers of corporate communications, he said.

“We’re able to deal with people directly, personally almost, and address their concerns,” Riley said. “It’s not all sunshine and rainbows when someone pays their utility bill or comes to a public meeting, but I think without question people would point to our storm response as a real strength.”

Both Wallingford and Norwich also benefit from mutual aid agreements with other public utilities in the region.

Wallingford requested aid Tuesday from the Northeast Public Power Association, and crews responded from three utilities in Massachusetts and one in Vermont. Hendershot said that the aid was a “lifesaver.”

Norwich called for mutual aid from the same association and four crews from Massachusetts arrived Wednesday morning. One crew brought a digger truck, which helps with downed power lines, Riley said. The utility put the assisting crews up for the night in hotels and they will continue helping on Friday, he said.

“We always refer to mutual aid as enlightened self-interest,” Riley said. “We needed help, they were here right away. In other instances, we’ve responded.”