As Connecticut residents avoided the worst of the predicted storm damage from Henri, state and local officials generally praised preparations by Eversource, though the added cost to customers for the additional out-of-state crews remains unclear.
For State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, co-chair of the legislature’s Energy and Technology committee, Tropical Storm Henri looked like a sort of “fire drill” for Eversource to respond to major storms in the future.
Despite forecasts late last week predicting that Connecticut would be hit head-on by hurricane-force winds, and that Eversource customers could lose power for as much as 21 days, sending residents to grocery stores and gas stations in droves, Henri tracked to the east before making landfall in Rhode Island.
But Eversource appeared prepared for the worst, in what appeared to be an effort to avoid a repetition of Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020, when the utility was fined $55 million for what the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority said was a lack of ready crews to respond to the storm.
Some lawmakers say those penalties, and measures contained in a utility reform bill passed last September after widespread outrage over the response to Isaias, have pushed Eversource in the right direction – ensuring that it was fully prepared, rather than underprepared, for the storm response.
State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, one of the ranking Republicans on the Energy and Technology Committee, said he thought that Eversource had improved since the legislature passed the “Take Back Our Grid Act” last September following Isaias.
“I think that some of the fines and penalties that were put in place took the attention of the utilities, and now they probably pre-stage more people as a result of that,” said Formica.
According to a recent decision by PURA, Eversource had enough crews in Connecticut and in nearby states during Isaias to respond to about 400,000 customers losing power. That storm caused over 1 million residents to lose power, some for over a week.
During the later investigation of its storm response, Eversource told state regulators that the utility generally avoids bringing in out of state crews when forecasts are uncertain to avoid passing on unnecessary costs to customers.
Under the direction of new CEO Joe Nolan, the company took a different approach to Henri, preparing for between 625,000 and 870,000 customers — 50 to 69 percent of Eversource customers — to lose power for between 8 and 21 days.
Eversource said that it brought thousands of line and tree crews from as far as Canada, Texas, Florida and Oklahoma ahead of the storm.
The storm was not nearly as damaging as predicted in Connecticut, and the company said its line workers had restored power to more than 32,000 customers in Connecticut by 6 p.m. Sunday night, with about 27,00 customers still without power, mainly in the eastern part of the state. By 7 a.m. Monday morning, Eversource’s outage map showed about 8,000 customers still without power, and by 5 p.m. there were just 1,400 Eversource customers in Connecticut without power.
Needleman acknowledged criticism that the “Take Back Our Grid Act” could encourage utilities to over-prepare for storms at ratepayer expense, in an effort to avoid penalties to its shareholders.
Needleman said he wouldn’t want Eversource to go all out every time there is a potential thunderstorm, but that the preparation for Henri was appropriate given storm forecasts late last week.
“Friday morning when I talked to Joe Nolan, the storm was barreling toward Providence and we were out on the rain side. By Friday afternoon, it was barreling towards Bridgeport, and by Saturday it was moving back towards Madison,” Needleman said. “They kept moving the line, and it’s taking 10 different forecasts and blending them and trying to figure out the best decision you can make. If it had come and landed in the middle of the state, we’d be in a different situation.”
The costs to customers for the response to Henri remains to be seen.
“There’s going to be a time of adjustment and a time of balance, but what’s most important is we get people back on line as quickly and as safely as we possibly can, and that the great line men and women who work in very dangerous and difficult situations are safe,” Formica said.
After Isaias, the utilities tried to charge customers to recover more than $230 million for the response to Isaias – a request that PURA mostly rejected.
In penalizing Eversource and United Illuminating after Isaias, state regulators in part cited what they say was a failure to effectively communicate with customers and town leaders, delaying restoration efforts for that storm.
According to Formica, Nolan assured him ahead of Henri that in addition to bringing in thousands of line crews to assist with the restoration, Eversource was providing each town with a liaison to ease past problems with communication.
Eversource did “freak some people out” ahead of Henri, Needleman agreed, with announcements on Saturday that as many as 70 percent of customers could lose power in some cases for as long as 21 days.
Needleman said he understood the company uses broad categories for outages – a Level 4 event means that between 125,000 and 380,000 customers are out of power for 2 to 6 days, Level 3 would mean between 375,000 and 650,000 customers are out for 5 to 10 days, etc. — but that may have caused some unnecessary fear.
“I think PURA might have to do something to refine [the storm categories] a little bit so the public doesn’t get up in arms before the fact when everybody gets on TV and says the power could be out for as long as 21 days,” Needleman said.
Overall, Needleman said he was happy with how the company improved its communications compared with Isaias.
On the Rhode Island border, Stonington First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said that the town’s emergency operations center had a dedicated liaison to Eversource for most of the storm, and that communication flowed well even when she was not there.
At the height of the storm on Sunday, there were a little over 1,200 outages in Stonington, along with Canterbury among the highest totals in the state, said Chesebrough. In Stonington, those outages were restored by around noon on Monday, she said.
“They got everything back up and running way quicker than we could have anticipated, or even hoped,” Chesebrough said.
Sprague First Selectman Cheryl Blanchard said she was less impressed with Eversource’s communication, with about 20 percent of the customers in the town of 2,900 people still waiting for power to be restored early Monday afternoon.
Like many towns, Sprague didn’t experience the high winds that had been predicted, instead there were heavy rains, Blanchard said. A utility pole was causing the main outages in the village of Hanover. There were also spotty outages elsewhere in town caused by downed trees.
Blanchard said that Eversource had answered calls from the town, but didn’t reach out with information. She said she was expecting more proactive communication after all the discussion of the company’s communication during Isaias – when PURA said Eversource failed to effectively communicate with town leaders and customers.
“Today it’s gotten a little bit better with them reaching out to us,” Blanchard said early Monday afternoon. “Prior to that, we were reaching out, and we haven’t really had but a handful of people restored so far.”