HARTFORD, CT — Officials from the state’s largest utility, Eversource Energy, defended the company’s response to the late October storm that left hundreds of thousands without power, stating that it “turned into a more intensive storm than was forecast.”
Even though the co-chairman of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, Rep. Lonnie Reed, D- Branford, described Wednesday’s hearing as a “fact finding mission and not a witch hunt,” Eversource Senior Vice President Peter J. Clarke and other Eversource officials were questioned extensively by lawmakers.
Eversource officials spent more than one hour testifying and answering questions about how the company responded to the more than 311,000 customers impacted by the storm.
By comparison, a couple of United Illuminating officials spent about 15 minutes giving a presentation and answering a few questions from the committee about the 25,000 UI customers who lost power for a period sometime during the two-day storm.
The storm hit hardest along the shoreline and inland in eastern Connecticut, which are primarily serviced by Eversource. The wind gusted from 55-70 miles per hour from Sunday night, Oct. 29, into Monday, Oct. 30.
“What was really different was the duration of the winds,” Clarke told the committee. The storm, he added, “also reached further inland and turned into a more intensive storm than was forecast.”
Eversource officials submitted documents that stated the storm broke 231 poles in its coverage area; knocked down close to 5,000 primary and secondary wires, damaged 420 transformers, and took down 10 transmission lines. Further, Eversource said, more than 1,700 trees had to be cleared before all power was restored to impacted areas five days after the storm hit.
“This was largest storm in the last five years in Connecticut,” Michael Hayhurst, vice president of Electric System Operations for Eversource, said.
Their modeling predicted 125,000 customers would lose power when it ended up being 311,000.
Clarke defended the company’s overall response to the storm, stating that “85 percent of the customers had their power restored in 24 hours. That’s pretty quick restoration considering the severity of the storm.”
Reed, and other members of the committee, asked Eversource whether it had enough of a workforce in the state — or on call in nearby states — to handle big storms.
“We are having weather events that we haven’t seen before and competing with other states for workforce,” Reed said.
Clarke said Eversource is planning to add additional in-the-field staffing in the near future. However, he added, “An event like this we’re never going to have enough home-based employees for this kind of level of damage and response, nor would our customers want to pay for that.”
Asked by committee members about calling in out of state crews for help, Eversource officials said they did, but many of the workers who came in did so from states as far away as Kentucky and Alabama.
That’s because, they said, the storm was a regional one with Connecticut’s neighboring states of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia all incurring power outages themselves.
Both Eversource officials and United Illuminating Vice President Joseph Thomas, in answers to questions from committee members, maintained that their companies have aggressive tree trimming programs.
“If we solve the tree problem we mitigate a lot of the damage,” Thomas said. But he said getting to each and every tree is an impossibility.
Many of the trees or tree limbs that took down power lines were from outside of the “trim zone,” Hayhurst said.
Rep. Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven, asked Thomas how much thought utility companies have given to moving wires underground.
Thomas responded the problem in moving wires underground is “it would take many years and cost billions of dollars.”
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who along with Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, had written the Energy and Technology Committee asking for hearings on the storm response, testified at Wednesday’s hearing.
Both Osten, who is the first selectwoman in Sprague, and Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, told Eversource officials that many towns complained about the lack of communication from the company to customers and town officials during the height of the storm.
“We have a huge communication issue that needs to be addressed,” Osten said.
Senior Vice President and Customer Officer for Eversource Penelope Conner acknowledged the company did have some “technology” issues with its communications.
She said on the first day of the storm the company received over 125,000 calls.
When committee members asked her if the company has learned any lessons from the storm, she said it has and that it has “adjusted” and “augmented” its staffing in is communication area.
John Arsego, who manages community relations for Eversource, added that in the wake of the storm the company has had ongoing discussions with town leaders in its coverage area to make improvements to the communications before the next storm hits.
Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, told the UI and Eversource officials that what worries him is that the recent weather event was a “pretty good storm,” but nothing like the major hurricanes that have hit Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico in recent months.
“What happens if we really get hit?” Formica asked, adding that this is what really worries him.
The public will get a chance to weigh in on the response to the storm on Tuesday, Nov. 28. That hearing will be held at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, but a time has yet to be determined.