Eversource defends storm response to skeptical legislators

Top officials from Eversource on Thursday defended the utility’s electricity restoration efforts after Tropical Storm Isaias hit Connecticut earlier this month, but some state legislators remained unimpressed, questioning why vulnerable constituents were left in the dark for more than a week and why there continue to be communication breakdowns between Eversource and local leaders.

Legislators also questioned whether the multistate electric, gas and water utility has made the necessary investments and improvements in the power grid and its operations since a state panel came up with dozens of recommendations in 2012 after Superstorm Sandy and an October Nor’easter hit the state, causing lengthy power outages.

“From what I can see, too much of our grid looks like 1960s technology,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who estimated about 20% of his community remained without power for a week or more following this recent storm. “It doesn’t seem that the talk you have about robust investments is playing out on the ground.”

The General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee held a virtual informational hearing on Thursday on the storm response by Eversource and other utilities. The meeting was originally organized by the lawmakers to examine a controversial electric rate increase imposed by Eversource that occurred in July, shortly before the storm hit the state.

CEO Jim Judge told state legislators he understands many customers may be frustrated by the company’s response and lengthy outages, especially given the pandemic, but he insisted the company was well-prepared for the storm and that Eversource has made numerous improvements over the years that have resulted in improved service and reliability.

Judge stressed that the Aug. 4 storm turned out to be “more impactful and widespread than anybody expected,” creating three times the maximum damage that had been projected.

“Nobody, nobody that I’m aware of, predicted that Connecticut people would see a storm with impacts significantly bigger than Superstorm Sandy or Irene,” Judge said, noting there was a “huge logistics effort” to restore power that was made more challenging because of coronavirus safety protocols.

“We had more line crews working the restoration effort than we’ve ever had before on an event on our system — more than Irene, more than Sandy and more than the October 2011 storm,” he said, adding how the number of restoration crews was tripled within the first 48 hours after Isaias hit Connecticut on Aug. 4.

But lawmakers argued there were still places where people didn’t see crews for days. Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, D-Bethel, voiced concern about vulnerable elderly residents in his district being without power during the sweltering summer heat and communities having to grapple with water shortages because they rely solely on well water. He and other lawmakers said they also heard numerous complaints from constituents who lost perishable foods and medications, such as insulin.

Meanwhile, Rep. William Buckbee, R-New Milford, raised the issue of local officials not being able to reach Eversource after the storm hit and not receiving a plan from the utility for restoring power, a complaint that was voiced years ago as well.

“We don’t know what your plan is for an emergency when it happens,” Buckbee told the company’s executives. “We just don’t know what’s going on and I think that’s a major communication breakdown as well.”

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, the committee’s co-chair, said legislators hope to enact some immediate reforms that strengthen regulators’ powers and send a “clear message to all the ratepayers in the state and to the utilities” in a planned, upcoming special session.

“To me, it felt like they were relatively flat-footed and that their response was not great,” Needleman said of Eversource during an interview with The Associated Press.

He said larger changes will likely be addressed in the regular legislative session, which convenes in January. Gov. Ned Lamont has suggested linking the utility’s rate approvals to the company’s performance.

Connecticut regulators in July ordered Eversource to temporarily suspend a rate increase that appeared in customers’ July bills so an investigation can be conducted into whether customers were overcharged.

The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, which is also examining Eversource’s storm response, received numerous complaints from customers shocked by larger-than-normal electric bills, some twice as much as they usually pay. Eversource has said they were driven primarily by a significant increase in summer energy use and two recent delivery fee increases.

On Thursday, Judge said the average bill increased by $62, with $55 of that attributed to increased usage when many people were working from home during hot weather.