In the wake of serious electric outages in Connecticut, it would seem that speaking truth to power was never more urgently needed.

For far too long energy distribution companies in CT have swaggered with their control of a hostage consumer market and a relatively pliable DPUC and a legislature willing to accept their expertise and authority on all matters related to energy, rationalizing their monopoly under the rubric of a “secure” energy base.  It doesn’t seem so secure now.

Last legislative session the state took a modest step in the direction of reasserting some influence over the process and mandating a new model bent on creating a more just market, lower rates for consumers, and broader access to renewable energy.

The two storms that recently clobbered Connecticut (Irene and the Autumn Nor’Easter) came at the beginning of this process and are incredibly revealing about the weaknesses of our current system.

Let us start with the first main point.  The power distribution companies are profit- seeking corporations first. The provision of service is secondary, especially in the corporate world today where executive salaries have increased astronomically at the expense of the whole world.  Who pays for this profit taking? –  we do.  We pay for this in several ways.

First, over the last several years these companies have cut their field crews to the bone. Ask any union member.  How many good hardworking taxpaying workers have we lost?  Is it any wonder they end up having to hire the few remaining to work 16 hour and even longer shifts, stretching crews to unsafe limits?  These cavalier practices are further strained by last-minute scrambling for expensive out of state crews and sub-contractors.  Who will undoubtedly pay for this nonsense unless there is a class action lawsuit?  We will pay in the next round of rate hike requests.

For many years the power distribution companies have lobbied for and received hundreds of millions of dollars for more and more transmission lines, while fighting against every effort to expand clean energy and local power generation and distribution.  They have made millions in the administration of such funds.  How many fewer customers would have lost power if local distribution strategies had been implemented already 20 years ago?

If they were required to pay a fair market price for electricity produced by homeowners who install solar units, how many more consumers could have afforded the switch and been spared high energy costs and reduced peak load demand by now?  Given that solar energy is most effective in peak load times means that this energy is actually even worth significantly more than standard retail energy prices.  Families who are being held back from these investments are being doubly robbed.  How many jobs could have been created or saved in these industries and in the training and maintenance of these new technologies?  Local generation could possibly even change the way our energy is delivered.

Trashing and blaming thousands of storm-battered trees is idiotic and cutting them down will only increase our CO2 burden, and it goes directly against our mandate for lowering pollution levels.  Carving out huge swaths of land for more transmission is counter-intuitive.  Smart policies would take advantage of existing spaces for energy production such as along south facing highways and parking lots and roof space for solar power for example.

No one technology will solve all the problems but smart use of space and a variety of strategies is crucial.  This also means much more investment in saving energy, weatherization and possibly putting cables underground where feasible. Our current one- size-fits-all monopoly only serves utility executives and a few investors.

So here we are after the damage where residents have lost millions of dollars in perishable food, incalculable loss of time from work and some deaths. What is the response of Northeast Utilities?  Damage control is what we get and $10 million (what seems more like a possible bribe) to weaken or cut off efforts at a much larger possible lawsuit or state or federal investigation.  This is not the action of a responsible community institution to solve systemic weaknesses and fess up.  This is corporate bullet-dodging at its worst.  Our few municipal publicly-owned utilities in Connecticut did much better.

Going forward we must ask our new agency Department of Energy and Environmental Policy (DEEP) to help us out of the morass.  It has been charged with finding ways to lower rates, create a more efficient system, lower pollution and protect consumers with a secure energy base.  This is a tall order.  Status quo thinking, relying on old expensive technologies, enormous transmission costs that are vulnerable to such storms will not cut it.  All new changes can be expensive but we must at least have a reasonable expectation that they will be cost –effective and functional in the long-term.

Hollow bluster about trusting private corporations to do the right thing won’t cut it.  Relying on the stacked deck contracts of ISO won’t cut it.  Superficial analyses claiming renewable energy won’t work in Connecticut (as UI and CL&P have both tried to sell to the legislature in their phony Integrated Resource Plan reports) won’t cut it.  Doing a few showcase projects that mostly fund corporations receiving renewable energy funds instead of helping consumers make the transition (as the Clean Energy Fund has done in the past) won’t cut it.

It is now time for Dan Esty and DEEP to begin implementing the reforms called for in the last session and to strengthen the emerging industries that represent the future in energy as well as making Connecticut more affordable for consumers and for small businesses to stay in our State.  If they don’t do it soon we will be in DEEP …. trouble.
Frank Panzarella is from Fight the Hike, a citizen/consumer coalition that came together in 2007 to fight the electric rate increases in CT.