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Energy Committee Members Weigh in with in-depth Critique of Connecticut’s Power Grid and Utilities

As hundreds of thousands of Eversource customers wait into the weekend for the utility to restore electrical service, the company has drawn scrutiny from state lawmakers who promise hearings to investigate its storm preparedness and response.

More than 900,000 Eversource customers lost power after Tropical Storm Isaias blew through Connecticut on Tuesday afternoon, downing trees and power lines in every corner of the state.

Eversource assured customers on Thursday that an estimated 99 percent of customers will have power on Tuesday, and that additional out-of-state mutual aid crews will help make “significant progress” over the weekend.

Already, Gov. Ned Lamont has called on the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to investigate the company’s response, and State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, who chairs the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee, announced that the committee will hold hearings on the issue when the legislature returns in regular session.

Members of the committee interviewed by CT Examiner were critical of Eversource’s response to Isaias and of an apparent lack of progress since the company’s predecessor Connecticut Power & Light faced legislative scrutiny after three widespread outages in 2011 and 2012.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, questioned whether Eversource made the right investments after promising to make improvements to secure the grid after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and the 2011 October snowstorm that caused over 800,000 outages, the most the utility had faced seen until Isaias.

“We’re not talking about an EMP [electromagnetic pulse] attack,” Cheeseman said.  “We’re talking about a natural event that happens on a regular basis, that we’ve gone through many times before, and one would hope they would have learned to be prepared for this.”

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, was part of the task force that reviewed utilities’ responses to Hurricane Sandy. He said that there has been an emphasis on tree trimming and securing vulnerable assets, like transformer stations, along the coastline. 

“I think for the first few years, they had a very robust program – to the point that some owners were pushing back saying, ‘don’t cut my trees,’” Steinberg said. “I think that is typical of human nature, our focus shifted, and our emotional response to their handling of the problem dissipated, and the momentum dissipated as well.”

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, questioned the return on investment of the Eversource tree removal program. Ratepayers spent millions of dollars over several years to remove trees that were causing issues for power lines. Formica said that a storm like Isaias shouldn’t have caused so many problems.

“We don’t even have a hurricane at this point and we have trees down everywhere and power outages as a result,” he said. “I think it’s important to relook at that program and to check the effectiveness of it and ask the question of why there are still so many trees down.”

Steinberg said that Connecticut is particularly vulnerable to outages, because much of its power is generated out of state, because of the number of power lines, and because the state has some many trees that can potentially damage power lines. But Eversource can still modernize the grid to make it more reliable, he said.

Eversource’s recent price hike for delivery charges has made the company a target of customers and politicians before the storm, but Steinberg said that their bills don’t explain what people are actually paying for. There is a cost to modernizing the electric grid, he said.

“As we’ve just seen with the outrage about the increase in Eversource rates related to these delivery charges, people are not ready to hear they may need to actually pay more in order to make these investments that are really necessary,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said that utility companies need to make significant investments in the grid, installing wires that can handle current flow in both directions as people adopt more solar generation, and smarter transformers that are able to reroute electricity.

Steinberg also said that Eversource benefits from a guaranteed profit and little risk, and that the utility hasn’t innovated in Connecticut like they have in Massachusetts.

He said that there has been talk about shifting from subsidizing solar development to a feed-in tariff model, in which customers with their own electric generation, like rooftop solar, are paid for electricity they provide to the grid, but that the state can’t adopt a feed-in tariff model because utilities haven’t followed through on installing smart meters.

According to Steinberg, that’s something that needs to happen to support the adoption of solar energy.

Steinberg said that the state has also studied micro-grids, very small networks with a generator outside the grid, which could ensure that critical resources like public buildings, gas stations and grocery stores all have power even when there are widespread outages.

“We’re hearing stories of people who are dependent on oxygen in their homes, and without electricity, they’re in danger,” Steinberg said. “And if you have safe havens for folks, you know where there’s always going to be power.”

Steinberg said that Connecticut’s reliance on energy produced outside the state is a problem, as well.

The grid will be more reliable, he said, when generation is better distributed, with a hydrogen fuel cell or solar array, for example, hardwired to power a specific area.

Staffing reductions

On the issue of staffing and resources — which has been a common focus of lawmakers — Steinberg said that Eversource has to weigh the cost of preparing for events that come only once or twice a year.

So a utility has to decide whether to retain additional staff throughout the year in case there is a major event, or instead rely on a network of outside sources when needed, said Steinberg.

“After Sandy, and even to some degree after Irene, it was exposed that there’s a fair bit of risk involved in hedging those bets the way they did – that they had been over a period of years cutting back on their staffing, and nobody really noticed it until we had a problem,” he said.

But according to Needleman, insufficient staffing and a lack of preparedness was exacerbated by restrictions on mutual aid from workers in other states during the pandemic. He called it a “catastrophe waiting to happen.”

Needleman said that Eversource had a limited pool of outside help to call on, because mutual aid crews could not respond from the south or the west due to the pandemic.

“They’re going to pull from Canada, New Hampshire and Vermont, but they can’t pull those crews from Louisiana and Kentucky,” said Needleman. “We’ve had crews here that have come from as far as Texas, and maybe even out west, and we’ve sent crews from Connecticut down there when they have events.”

But Steinberg also said that Eversource doesn’t have strong incentives to stand up more staff, and most years they get away with it. Then a big storm comes and they look terrible.

Given the severity of storms in recent history and how early in the year this storm came, Steinberg said that it’s time for the utility to revisit their assumptions about the likelihood of significant storms.

“They have some built in resistance to change because their current situation is pretty good,” Steinberg said. “Well, one could argue that with all the heat they’re taking right now between rate increases and storm response, maybe this is the ideal time to engage in those kinds of dialogues.”