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Eversource was on a victory lap. Then came Isaias

Gov. Ned Lamont talks to Dave Lynch who was cleaning his neighborhood on Thursday, Aug. 6 in West Hartford. Lynch said his house has been out of power and internet. (Yehyun Kim, CTMirror.org)

Eversource Energy’s chairman and chief executive, Jim Judge, was jubilant in a message to shareholders in March. Based on returns to investors and a seeming newfound immunity to protracted blackouts, Judge assured them the company was coming off its “most successful year ever.” 

The Eversource board agreed, paying Judge a $3 million bonus that swelled his compensation for the year to $19.8 million. Shareholders didn’t object. The stock price had soared from $65.04 to $85.07, a gain of 31% over 12 months. And the reliability of the company’s electric distribution system was in the industry’s top 10%. 

“Our overall electric system reliability performance in 2019 improved by 26 percent; customer power interruptions were on average 21.6 months apart,” Judge wrote in a shareholder message sent two months before their annual meeting in May.

That streak ended spectacularly Tuesday, with the lights going out on more than 800,000 Eversource customers in Connecticut during Tropical Storm Isaias. That was quickly followed by accusations of a failure to prepare and regulators opening an investigation into the staffing and procedures of  Connecticut’s dominant provider of electricity, as well as the smaller United Illuminating.

On Friday morning, one-third of Eversource customers were without power, and a full restoration was not expected until Tuesday. United Illuminating, which serves Bridgeport, New Haven and 15 smaller communities, reported 15% of its customers were out.

As was the case nearly a decade ago when two tropical storms and a nor’easter left many residents without power for more than a week, the lack of communication by the two monopolies is an issue.

“There has been a significant failure in communication here, leaving upward of 800,000 Eversource customers without even a clear way to report an outage from the outset of the storm event,” said Marissa P. Gillett, the chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. “There are disturbing reports emerging about the coordination, or lack thereof, between our electric utilities and the communities which they serve. This is simply unacceptable.”

Judge has been publicly silent in the face of complaints about Eversource’s performance. He met privately with the governor on Wednesday, then declined to join him facing reporters waiting on the lawn outside Eversource’s hilltop offices in the Hartford suburb of Berlin on Wednesday. Instead, he dispatched a lieutenant, generally seen as a faux pas in crisis communication.

“My counsel to my clients is that the more serious the situation, the higher level of person you want to be speaking for the company,” said Gene Sheehan, a public-relations consultant.

And when the governor is talking to the press on your lawn, the CEO’s absence can be interpreted as a dismissiveness, he said.

Judge and the governor spoke again Thursday by telephone.

The company announced Thursday night it had restored power to more than 435,000 customers, but 485,000 still were in the dark. Earlier, Lamont toured West Hartford, a community where more than half of Eversource customers lost power Tuesday and 43% still were out Friday morning.

Eversource was the subject of sarcasm.

“Eversource says they’re on the way,” Lamont told David Lynch, a homeowner cleaning up debris.

“Oh, well, I can’t wait until they get here,” Lynch said.

They laughed.

At Lamont’s urging, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority opened an investigation into the preparation for and response to the widespread blackouts by Eversource and United Illuminating — news that broke on Eversource’s lawn. The two regulated utilities have geographic monopolies for the distribution of electricity.

New to the job, Gillett is promising an aggressive review.

“Since moving to Connecticut last year to take the helm of PURA, I’ve heard the utilities tout significant investments in grid hardening and vegetation management made at the ratepayers’ expense over the past decade,” Gillett said in a statement. “Frankly, I am deeply disappointed in seeing this play out in real time. Utilities are in the business of delivering reliable service, and the public should know that I’m not interested in their excuses. This is fresh off the heels of PURA’s announcement last week about our investigation into the pending rate increase requests. The utilities will be afforded their day in court before PURA, but the governor did not recruit me to Connecticut to serve as a passive observer.”

Eversource is the product of a merger of Northeast Utilities in Connecticut and NSTAR in Massachusetts. It is now New England’s largest energy delivery system, with subsidiaries that provide electricity, natural gas and water to 4 million customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

With Judge out of the public eye, the company’s defense has been left to Craig Hallstrom, the president of regional electric operations. Hallstrom appeared briefly with Lamont on the lawn Wednesday, then spoke to reporters again Thursday. 

Hallstrom said he is the appropriate official to tell Eversource’s story. Aside from overseeing electric operations, Hallstrom also is in charge of disaster preparedness and response.

He is unapologetic about Eversource’s performance.

“I think we were ready,” Hallstrom said in an interview. “With all our tools, we made a decision what the storm was most likely going to do. The rest is history. It’s a lot bigger than we thought it was, probably what a lot of people thought it was.

The state requires Eversource and United Illuminating to assess storm threats using a five-level scale.

UI predicted a level 3 event, meaning it expected 30% to 50% customers would be affected, with outages that could last five days or more. Eversource prepared for a milder  “level 4 event,” anticipating 10% to 29% of customers affected, with outages lasting two to six days.

The threat assessment dictates how many emergency crews, many from out of state, Eversource will pay to stand by. Some out-of-state crews arrived Thursday, with others expected from Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, North Caroline, Maryland and New York.

“By the end of tomorrow, we will have just as many crews as we would have had we declared a level 3,” Hallstrom said.

PURA will be looking at staffing, among other things. Mike Zappone, the man in charge of bringing in out-of-state crews to restore power after major outages, had retired at least a month ago, and his job still was vacant two months into the hurricane season. 

“He’s helping us here today. We had him back. He has a lot of contacts,” Hallstrom said.

But he downplayed the vacancy.

“There are more people than just him” responsible for hiring out-of-state crews though mutual aid arrangements with other utilities, he said.

Ultimately, ratepayers bear the cost of hiring crews to stand by, as well as keeping them on the payroll for as long as it takes to restore power. Hallstrom said Eversource could err on the side of overstaffing, saving itself from criticism.

 “No one would ever be able to accuse me of not being ready — but that’s not financially responsible to anybody,” he said.

Since Tropical Storm Irene and a freak snowstorm caused massive outages in 2011, followed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Hallstrom said the company has amassed a good record for restoring power after storms.

“I probably sound a little defensive, but this stuff bothers me,” Hallstrom said. “I have people, including myself, we put so much energy and effort into doing the right thing for our customers. It’s tough when someone says you didn’t do the right thing, looking backwards.”

Hallstrom said about 633,000 customers were out at the peak, but the total outages topped 800,000, because some customers lost power as others were regaining it. By any metric, he said, it was one of the largest blackouts to ever hit Connecticut.

But he said the dissection of Eversource’s performance is premature.

“I’ll be honest with you. I had 600,000 customers out on my system,” Hallstrom said. “It’s not really the time to argue about whether we did a good job or a bad job. Plus, it’s not over, right?”

It’s not.

7 comments

john j flynn August 7, 2020 at 11:19 pm

Senator Murphy is Eversource’s top Donor/recipient, Congressman Courtney and Hayes are second and third. Eversource has made 900 million while only paying the Democratic Governors Association $105,00 and $100,000 in 2017 and 2018. its is pay for play. Bob Duff pushed $55 million through PURA and the executives pocketed it all. the top executives make 40 million each after only making minuscule kickbacks. Bob is so generous with our money when we are bankrupt living on stimulus vastly underemployed giving free utilities to foreign nationals and has bankrupted the state. Bob if I give you $55 million of tax payer $$ will you give me $100,000? The DNC has sold itself too cheap this time. Oxy/Perdue paid the DNC $116 million to kill 130 opioid addicts per day. Himes and Blumenthal should take Duff to school.

Ed August 8, 2020 at 4:44 pm

You would think after Hurricane Sandy and the various other storms that caused massive power outages in the past 10 years that the power companies would be able to deal with a tropical storm.

John ONeill August 8, 2020 at 6:56 pm

It’s been 100 hours since we lost power. Call me spoiled, but I think that’s a little much.As we haven’t gotten thru to Eversource we have been anxiously awaiting any news from anyone. Twitter, Facebook, The Hour, Nancy on Norwalk. Nothing for our street. Luckily as I drove under the wires a few minutes ago I spotted a pickup from a Texas utility of all places checking things out. Very nice guys who informed me they were documenting the damage and will report it asap. Keep in mind we are 100 hours into this debacle. When I Asked For his best guess on restoration he thought a crew would be out in 2-3 DAYS!!! So in a nutshell the best info I’ve gotten has been 100+ hours later from a guy from Texas! Just think about that for a second. ..I’ll update from here at the 150 mark..I’d like to thank the planners on this, including our state energy committee for the terrific oversight on this.
My Great American hero of today is a double. Ben Franklin for his work on electricity and Tommy Edison for his freaking light bulb. To calm down, I will visit my friend Vinny over at Sunset Grille and eat terrific food while watching the sunset over Norwalk Harbor. So, thanks to Ben, Tommy and Vinny for all they do and have done….I think I have a right to be upset, don’t you!!!

Nonpartisan August 9, 2020 at 6:46 pm

It’s now 120 hours
Wires in the ground- not checked out

Tree still on primarily feeders

Where are our community leaders- Duff, Rilling

And Cable vision makes eversource look competent.

Lesley Schab Korzennik August 10, 2020 at 9:45 am

Absent in the discussion regarding this calamity is climate change and the state of forestation in Connecticut. Warmer days and nights and shifting rain and drought patterns have significantly contributed to the weakening of trees. Additionally, I bet most people don’t realize that Connecticut is one of the most heavily forested states in The Nation. Lots and lots of trees here, very old ones too. They don’t last forever and events like last week are Natures way of perpetuating the ecosystem. Unfortunately, we are subject to its whims as well. It’s been unexpectedly traumatizing to loose so many trees. They are sentinels in our lives.

Cathy Travers August 10, 2020 at 2:09 pm

To me the key issue all these conglomerates whether it’s Eversource Verizon optimum Frontier or Home Depot or Lowes ..the list is long …their primary function is to provide CUSTOMER SERVICE … none of them are reasonable, reliable ,available or have trained personnel or even automated systems that provide this service. Think about how many times any of you out there have tried to reach or resolve an issue with no results ??? Most customer service is sent out of the country to people who know zero or fail to help. We pay more and more for product so executives can make millions in salaries and share HOLDERS can pat each other on the back at our expense … consumers are held hostage by too many monopolies of necessary businesses . These companies have failed their customers and no cares .

Norwalk Spectator August 10, 2020 at 5:52 pm

Okay. Let me get this straight…my most recent electric bill listed the DELIVERY CHARGES at twice the cost of the actual electricity we used. And last month, we had two small black outs that disrupted online business meetings. That was BEFORE the storm. Now, our power has been out since 2 p.m. Tuesday and the lights just came back on at 4:00 p.m. on Monday. My bill had best be reduced significantly for 7 days of NON-SERVICE because not only were we sitting in the dark…we had NO water…and I lost money because I work from home. Am I steamed?? You bet your bippy I am — and I suspect I am not alone.

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