Eversource will pay $1.8 million to settle claims that it sent out thousands of “high-pressure” marketing materials that were deceptive and violated state law to convince homeowners to connect to natural gas, Attorney General William Tong said on Tuesday.
It is the second time Eversource has been ordered to pay a fine over its marketing for a natural gas expansion program – a total of $3.6 million.
“Eversource misled homeowners to get them to switch to natural gas. These high-pressure tactics are unacceptable coming from any business, much less a regulated utility,” Tong said in a news release on Tuesday.
In a column for the Hartford Courant in August 2021, Kevin Rennie first reported on high-pressure marketing letters, which warned residents in South Windsor that they would not be able to connect their homes to natural gas for years after an impending road paving project.
“Once your road has been resurfaced, it will be several years before the pavement can be opened again due to the town’s paving moratorium,” the materials read, according to Rennie. “We will not be able to provide a gas service line to your home during the moratorium. If your current heating equipment fails, or if you decide to install natural gas for any other reason after this deadline, you will not be able to connect to natural gas.”
Rennie reported there were no plans for those roads to be paved, leading the offices of the Attorney General and Consumer Counsel to request that the Public Utility Regulatory Authority investigate Eversource’s marketing of its natural gas expansion program.
In December, PURA found that the thousands of advertisements Eversource sent out to Connecticut customers between 2019 and 2021 did not disclose whether they were paid for by customers or shareholders, violating state marketing laws. PURA fined Eversource $1.797 million – $500 each for 3,594 people who received the advertisements without a “paid for by” disclosure. Of that fine, $1.75 million went to Operation Fuel to help gas customers pay their bills.
PURA also continued a broader investigation into how the state’s gas companies marketed the natural gas system expansion plan – a key energy program from Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration that attempted to steer residents to natural gas for home heating by subsidizing the costs to connect to gas mains
In April the regulators decided to bring that program to an end far short of its goals for new connections, after finding that limited interest in the program didn’t justify the increasing costs to subsidize new gas customers.
Tong’s office – including Legal Investigator Caylee Ribeiro, Assistant Attorneys General Lauren Bidra and John Wright, and Deputy Associate Attorney General Michael Wertheimer – also continued to investigate whether the claims the company made in its advertising were “false and misleading.”
Tong’s office alleged that the advertisements were unfair and deceptive marketing practices that violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act. In a news release, Tong’s office said its investigation found multiple towns where Eversource had made the same claim that customers needed to connect before a “paving moratorium” – and where no such moratorium existed.
Elizabeth Benton, the office’s spokesperson, said the office had affidavits from Cromwell, Groton, South Windsor, Torrington, Vernon and Waterford that they did not have a moratorium on paving when Eversource sent out the marketing materials.
Eversource agreed to settle those claims by paying $1.6 million to Operation Fuel, and $200,000 to the Office of the Attorney General, which will pay for consumer education and enforcement, according to the release.
“We’re pleased to resolve this matter in a cooperative and constructive way by providing help to utility customers through Operation Fuel and the Attorney General’s consumer education fund,” Eversource spokesperson Mitch Gross said. “We continue to focus on providing assistance to all of our customers who need it.”