[OPINION] Patience, Please!

Alert, observant and insightful “06880” reader Iain Bruce writes:

In the first 3 days after Isaias I bicycled about 125 miles in Westport, Norwalk, Wilton, Weston, Easton and Fairfield. The breadth and intensity of the destruction is astounding, as bad as or worse than Sandy. I fear that folks who are excoriating CL&P and UI may lack perspective.

The electric grid is large and complex. Getting electricity to any particular place suffers from the limitations of what is built and the laws of physics. The grid covers not only Westport but all our neighboring towns, and is an interconnected and integrated whole. It has to be reassembled in a logical order with legitimate competing priorities (safety, police/fire, population density, etc.), but always subject to those limitations of structure and physics.

I have cycled on numerous roads where huge decades-old hardwoods (oak, maple, hickory) have been split asunder and taken out all the wires in 4 or 5 places over less than a mile. I’ve passed through by walking the bike across a lot of yards, over walls, and under trees where cars cannot go (and bicycles probably ought not).

Several days after Isaias, this was still the scene on Charcoal Hill Road. (Photo/Pat Blaufuss)

One example will suffice. On Friday I saw a UI crew working to repair huge damage at the intersection of Redding Road and Hull’s Farm in Fairfield. When they finish this large-in-its-own-right job after several hours it will probably restore power to approximately nobody, because 700 feet farther north on Redding Road another tree has taken out the wires, and 1,000 or so feet north of that, a large tree is suspended by electric cables above the street.

Half a mile farther north, Cross Highway is closed on both sides of Merwins Road with wires down and transformers smashed amidst arboreal carnage. This all in a mile or so of travel. Multiply this by hundreds of miles of grid in Westport and surrounding towns, and you should have at least an inkling of the scale of the problem.

Many of your readers do understand this, but people calling the utilities callous, careless, or worse seem themselves uninformed at best. Patience would be in order.

52 responses to “[OPINION] Patience, Please!

  1. Terry Bracken

    How about we bury power lines?? How about a qualified tree inspector who may advise in advance which trees will go down??

    • Jack Backiel

      We had buried power lines in South Palm Beach, but I remember losing power sometimes. The good part was that we were on the same power grid as Mar a Lago, so problems were fixed very quickly!

    • Joshua Stein

      Burying opens them up to water intrusion from flooding.

    • Average cost to bury utility lines is $1 million per mile.

  2. Robert Harrington

    This was a very harsh storm and far greater disruption than usual should be expected. Furthermore, the hard working teams on the ground from Eversource and third party contractors should be respected and appreciated.

    However, Mr Bruce I fear you are letting this public monopoly (across multiple states) off too easily. The issue is not just about this particular storm but the way Eversource is structured and the way it plans for the future. We can see just from it’s communication and technology responses and website that it is massively unprepared. It’s communication has been abysmal.

    This company is geared too much towards its shareholders, and not enough towards its customers. A $3 million bonus to its CEO just 3 months ago? A company boasting, this is “its best year ever” recently? Nearly $20 million remuneration for the CEO this year? That is simply unacceptable. A stock price at an all time high – driven in part but overly favorable regulation and its ability for it to keep on delivering the cheapest form of over the ground wiring in most locations. It does it because it’s allowed to get away with it.

    Yes the grid is complex – but it’s also old and the cheapest form of infrastructure. It’s unrealistic to put all wires under the ground but it should be done in key strategic areas and where they are running along main routes or through thick forest. But they don’t plan for LT changes like this because it’s expensive and it would hurt their profits too much. Only recently this company was trying to put through a rate increase through only to be stopped by PURA. That was a small victory for its customer base.

    Eversource needs to plan for more storms and bigger storms. Our climate is becoming more volatile and they will be increasingly dealing with this. They MUST plan for this. Many other countries simply don’t manage their infrastructure this way. Driving around Westport before the storm much of “grid” looks like some out of a bygone age, another era.

    With respect I saw your some of your involvement with Aquarion during the discussions over the North Avenue water tanks. We gained more concessions there because several key political leaders and the community were united. On a few occasions I witnessed you in meetings being a little too sympathetic to the monopoly water company – now owned by Eversource. I don’t say this to be rude or make it personal at all but it did weaken our argument at times. If we let them get away with it – they will. That was another case where the cheapest infrastructure was being put in place until we were able to get some importance concessions on a faster and more material water main/ piping upgrade that was badly needed too. Initially the water company was just trying to put in some much needed water tanks without upgrading the piping system at a fast enough pace. In that case we learned their initial infrastructure solution alone did NOT fix the water pressure / fire hydrant problem in town. Political leadership and community involvement there has secured greater water pressure beyond what being proposed by the initial “cheap” proposal.

    This storm is a tough one – but we must work together to ensure that they monopoly / high profit companies are not just responding to these events but properly planning for the future.

    Patience to some extent, yes. But much stronger oversight and long term planning is needed too. We cannot be too cozy with a monopoly that we all rely on. Those days MUST be over.

    • Dana Brownell.

      Mr. Harrington,
      I think Dan Woog should post your excellent response in his next email distribution so readers can easily access your well thought and structured points. Thank you!

    • Bill Strittmatter

      I’m not sure you fully understand how utilities like Eversource set rates or make money. They are regulated utilities whose rates are not set by whim but are set by government regulators in a relatively complicated, and some might argue, convoluted, manner. However, the gist of the regulatory regime is that rates are set to cover their costs plus a return on capital invested as noted in the Eversource 10K:

      “Under state and federal law, our electric, natural gas and water companies are entitled to charge rates that are sufficient to allow them an opportunity to recover their prudently incurred operating and capital costs and a reasonable rate of return on invested capital, to attract needed capital and maintain their financial integrity, while also protecting relevant public interests.”.

      In that context, the statement “…recently this company was trying to put through a rate increase through only to be stopped by PURA.“ is false. In fact, PURA approved a rate increase that they subsequently retracted due to public outcry but which, in one form or another (likely smoothed over time), they will probably reinstate unless PURA made some math error in the original process.

      Also in that context, your suggestion that Eversource hasn’t buried power lines “because it’s expensive and it would hurt their profits too much. ” is so off base “it’s not even wrong”. I can assure you that, in a perfect world, they would be more than happy to spend $20 billion to bury power lines as that would entitle them to pass through the cost as well as a return on that cost substantially INCREASING their net income. However, that would also cause rates to increase substantially probably leading you, and many others commenting here, to scream about higher rates.

      In the context of utility regulation, the costs to bury lines would likely be deemed “imprudent” by regulators if for no other reason than the impact on rates. It is far better and less expensive, in their view, to suffer occasional extended outages and related costs due to storms than to rebuild the grid underground. You can have more resilient infrastructure or lower rates, but not both.

      And congratulations on getting Aquarion to spend more money on the North Avenue tanks. We will all be sharing that cost as it works it’s way through the rate base. Your fellow ratepayers thank you.

      As for the CEO’s compensation, personally I agree that it does seem excessive though it’s probably not particularly out of line with executive compensation these days. I suspect the same can be said about a decent number of your fellow Westporters.

      • Robert Harrington

        Mr Strittmater – simply put you seem to like “cheap” infrastructure and support super profits of the public utilities – and I respect that opinion, I just happen to disagree with it. Shareholders win in that environment. I fully understand how utilities make their money and how Eversource has bought political influence in neighboring states. Money talks. We need a united and strong political class to ensure we get the right balance here and increase oversight and shift the legislation. You paint the picture that is only about a trade off regarding rates. That is false. With respect you seem to fully accept the profits that these monopoly’s are allowed to make. I do not. We need strong elected officials to shift that debate. I am confident it can happen.

        As to your comment about Aquarion – as a resident I found it unacceptable that almost 80% of the town’s fire hydrants were “deficient” as measured by ISO standards – and worked with others and elected representatives at the town and state level to ensure this figure will be drastically reduced over the next 5 years. We could have just accepted the narrative of the monopoly but we didn’t. We were not prepared to accept another “cheap” or “good enough” infrastructure project that didn’t fix the problem. Clearly Eversource was attracted by the profits that Aquarion could generate as they decided to acquire the company.

        • Bill Strittmatter

          Mr. Harrington – I am by no means a “cheap infrastructure” person nor am I a shill for public utilities. However, I appreciate that public companies do need to earn money on capital invested, even monopolies, though they are regulated to ensure they don’t extract monopoly profits. Do you know what Eversource’s allowed return on equity is? Hint – it is in the single digits.

          On the other hand, I also understand the municipal utility model which eliminates the need for profits to attract capital as paying for infrastructure, operating costs and all associated risks are borne directly by local municipal ratepayers and/or taxpayers. That will certainly eliminate the required single digit return on equity. If that is a route you think worth pursuing, by all means, advocate that the Town of Westport exercise eminent domain and take over Eversource’s Westport operations.

          If Westport went that route, I doubt that you would see a marked reduction in rates but, you never know, and there might even be heightened customer responsiveness. I know everyone is appreciative of how responsive Town government is today. Having said that I think you will still find that burying the power lines will unacceptably increase your power bill.

          • J. Peter Lynch

            I find it amusing to discuss the financials of a monopoly utility company “employed” and regulated solely by the state. Why did it become a public company and has investors and seeks single digit return at all? Who’s the largest investor(s) of Eversource? How can Mr. Judge wear 3 top hats within Eversource and manage to pay himself such a ludicrous total comp last year? Care to shed some lights?

      • Ever study Cost Accounting? It can be very creative. PURA is weak.

        • Bill Strittmatter

          Yes, actually. But, for what it is worth, while regulatory accounting is a bit odd, the rules are pretty well defined. As for PURA, you’d have to take that up with the governor.

    • Debbie O'Malley

      Thank you Robert Harrington for your excellent summary of the issues confronting all the stakeholders here. The fact is that Eversource takes advantage of their monopoly to maximize shareholder value while concurrently delivering the minimum to their customers in order to expand their operating margins as much as possible. What was the point of deregulation if Judge is making $20M a year delivering a substandard service and holding customers hostage?

      Yes, there are an astounding number of repairs to be made, but as Robert pointed out, if they sacrificed some of their gaudy margin expansion by reinvesting in preemptively burying lines in vulnerable areas, this wouldn’t be such a catastrophic situation.

      Enough with these losers. I hope our leaders hold their feet to the fire until some real change is affected. The time for empty promises has passed.

    • Thanks. Very well expressed.

  3. Mark L Yurkiw

    Mr Harrington, Mr Bracken, & Mr Bruce are “on the money” because it’s always “follow the money”. Why did Eversource have their best year ever?, because they kept more of it rather than investing in their own company…a PUBLIC utility.
    The problem is not with the wonderful hard working people that come out to do the dangerous work of repairing a broken system and by that I mean the Utility company not the wires and trees. Let me repeat this wording ….WIRES & TREES, they need to be separated permanently. To say it’s not practical or too expensive is once again leaving us exposed to the next time and the one after that….which we will pay for in our utility bills anyway and suffer the consequences. We need leadership corporate & political with real accountability & responsibility to the public in public utilities. Westport is a paradise, let’s not wait till it’s Paradise California.

    • Bill Strittmatter

      Out of curiosity, how much more are you willing to pay for electricity delivery to have all the lines buried. One way or another, you will need to pick up your share of the cost.

      If it is Eversource, it will be recovered in rates. If the Town of Westport does it, it will mean higher property taxes or special assessment. If the more nebulous state or federal “government” should do it, that’s higher income taxes.

      Clawing back the CEO’s compensation isn’t going to get very far. So double? Triple?

      • Robert Harrington

        Let me ask you a question – How much profit are you prepared to let a monopoly make in supplying an essential service to your community ? What level of profit is too high ?

        • Bill Strittmatter

          Their current regulated single digit return doesn’t seem outrageous to me but then again it is higher than the rate Westport could borrow money.

          Eliminating their profits entirely wouldn’t make much of a dent in the cost to bury the power lines.

          • Robert Harrington

            Mr Strittmatter with respect Eversource earned over $1.1bn in 2019. It’s CEO total comp package was just under $20 million representing a 34% increase over 2018. I am highly confident that most of his customers didn’t increase their pay by that much in 2019. His top team also make between $2.5-3.5MM. If nothing more the optics are wrong – but I think it goes beyond even that factor.

            If we just look at its Eversource’s last Q4 – the story is here: op expenses were down but operating income was up almost 10%. Its earnings from electric distribution (what we are talking about here) were up 19% y/y driven by high distribution revenues. They are also using the tax rate to drive lower “optical” returns to partially satisfy PURA.

            There are more $s to go around for large capital investments in certain key areas.

            But I think we are at cross purposes here. I am not suggesting all lines should be buried – I was very clear about that. We need to be strategic in the most important area. Additionally, no one is suggesting, least of all me, that a monopoly shouldn’t make a profit – but there can be a shift toward the consumer and user. You are right PURA is in the prime seat but they get to work within the legislation that needs changing. They should also look more broadly at shareholder returns vs consumer interests. They are appointed by the governor and we need a stronger hand here and hopefully we will now get that from Lamont.

            The Executive MUST give PURA the right legislation, set the right tone and lead.

            I 100% agree that when we are looking for change at the state level – the speaker would be a great place to start.

  4. With monopoly comes responsibility, and Eversource is not being held responsible by CT or the towns it serves.

  5. Cornelia Fortier

    Thank you, Robert Harrington, for your assessment. I’ve also read that, before the storm hit, UI accurately pegged its severity and was better prepared. Just another way Eversource came up short.

  6. Ernie Lorimer

    While the midnite Wednesday restoration estimate seems more an aspiration than a considered view, I’m also curious about the plans the other monopoly might have. When is Optimum going to be back online?

  7. J. Peter Lynch

    Redding and Hulls farms is still being repaired as of 5PM Sunday, if it started on Friday as you said then it is unacceptable. And different crew (hired gun) too!

  8. True but there are no trucks visible for many hours! They are not working non stop and should be! This is an emergency! Tree on post rd in front of 333 post rd still not touched after 5 days not acceptable

  9. Many thanks to the 06880 reader who wrote this piece. How fortunate we are
    that he put aside all safety concerns and ventured out on his 125 mile bike ride over 3 days so that he could tell us about hardwood being “split asunder” and equipment being smashed “amidst arboreal carnage”.
    It was ridiculously unsafe to be riding around given the conditions, which he somewhat acknowledged, yet he did it anyway!

    Regarding his plea for “patience”, given the number of people who lost power, I believe that most of us have shown patience. Those people who have not shown patience will hopefully still use their voices when a proper post-mortem is done to examine what could have been done, and must be done to try and lessen the impact of the next severe weather occurrence.
    Has Eversource been negligent in their preparation and spending in order to fatten their stock price? Let’s hope the politicians, and the public, do actually find out.

    But for now, do the readers of this column really need to be told that if you aren’t showing proper patience then you are “uninformed at best”?
    Pompous, at best?

  10. Joshua Stein

    Uninformed? Hardly. I think many of us understand the process. The problem is the utility failed big time. Starting with piss poor preparations and misclassifying the storm. There was a week’s notice to beef up crews and prepare. Why are crews sitting idle for days after it hit? If the pain point is tree crews, then where are the tree crews (why aren’t there more)? In any event, there are definitely ways things can be improved. They should be conducting table top exercises for this exact scenario and testing their processes. If processes need to be reworked, then rework them! If infrastructure needs to be updated or reconfigured to allow quicker disconnection and reconnection in the future, then do it! I’d like to see transparency, read their process manuals. I’d like to see their SLAs and half the response time for future events.

    • Joshua Stein

      And the buck doesn’t stop with the power company.. their should be legislation that forces their response capabilities to improve… Perhaps they were waiting for a disaster to be declared to take advantage of funding? Fix that. Also the cellular companies need some rules… Cell towers should have backup generators… Extra capacity… The scary thing is someone couldn’t call 911 for help in a medical emergency if the tower was offline. So many unacceptable things happening in 2020.

  11. Christine Schatz

    Robert is absolutely right that our elected officials, including me as a RTM member, need to pressure Eversource to do better. In addition, however, whenever there is any problem it makes sense to assess what you did to contribute to it or what changes you can make, on your own, to make it better. I can’t control Eversource but I can control my own actions. And unfortunately with climate change and increasing severe weather events, massive power outages will continue to happen, even if Eversource makes upgrades.

    After Sandy, we didn’t have power at our home for 13 days. We then sacrificed in other areas so that we could install a full house generator and take care of the remaining problematic trees on our property. (And I recognize that, financially, we’re lucky that we could figure out how to do that.) While we’re still without internet or reliable cell service, we have had power – which makes a big difference when you have 4 little kids.

  12. Leslie Alvarez

    I agree that fixing the problem is not easy and that patience is always good form however, I live in Weston and I can tell you patience ends when you don’t have water access because the well pump runs on electricity. Patience ends when you can’t get out of your home because of the tree hanging from wires blocks the path to food and water that you need for yourself and kids. Patience ends when you are told our small town will be last because we are a small town. Patience ends when someone asks to be patient towards a monopoly whose CEO is comfortably home with his last 3mm bonus and I have to decide if I should hold my pee because I don’t want to waste my water to flush the toilet.

  13. Frannie Southworth

    I understand that there enormous damage. I also understand that the Eversource workers went to North Carolina to get overpay and left us waiting for three days for out of town workers to start the the process of clearing trees and wires. I live on Cavalry Road and there were trees across the road for 3 full days, and our road is a pass through for the fire department! That is unacceptable especially after paying the largest bill we ever paid in 30 years for our electricity in Westport. This is not the first time we have had poor response from Eversource, but never this blatant with no clearing at all for a few days! There has to be competing companies in the utility field or this lack of response will continue. We are not expected to get our power restored until the 12th. The temperatures will be very high over the next three days, and I have a health condition that gets exasperated by high temps. There was damage but Eversourse dropped the ball. And their CEO makes 14 million a year, we pay top dollar, and we need them they are nowhere to be found!

  14. Nancie Rinaldi

    I have a question.. was anyone hurt in that crushed car on Charcoal Hill?

    • Wendy Cusick

      No one was terribly hurt maybe some scrapes definitely nerves frazzled.
      This is the second picture of this particular car from the rear. The first one shows the front of the car with both doors open.
      This is just my observation from viewing the picture and caption.
      I think the power and communication cables that were tangled in this huge tree acted like a net and stopped it just in just in time for the two residents to get out of the SUV Audi.

    • Yes. But they escaped uninjured somehow!

  15. Please spare us these foie gras musings. Some of us have jobs to do, water bottles to fill, food to throw out, and little time to wax poetic about trees “torn asunder.” Eversource is inept, lazy, and corrupt. Local government does ribbon-cutting instead of disaster-proofing. For the pro-monopoly, pro-utility, and pro-status quo crowd to counsel patience—and use the tedious patois of privilege—is galling. And it only perpetuates this cycle of incompetence.

  16. It’s a nightmare for us all but I totally agree with Mr Bruce. It’s gonna be great to be ‘normal’ again. Not pre-March normal but I vaguely remember our last Monday normal and await that like a kid for Christmas.

  17. Patricia Blaufuss

    Good question, Nancie. Westport EMS, fire, and police were on the scene on Tuesday, 8/4, around 6 p.m. No one appeared to be placed in the ambulance, but status of driver/passengers unknown. BTW- the crushed car and fallen tree are still there on Sunday morning, 8/9.

    • Wendy Cusick

      Occupants of car are fine.
      The tree has been cut and the car was towed away

  18. Isn’t it a bit “challenging” for our State Senators to regulate Eversource when they’re employed and “connected” by/to them??

    Sen. Witkos works for Eversource’s community relations

    Sen. Kissel is a corporate attorney for eversource

    Sen. Logan is a community relations exec at aquarion

    And lastly here’s the minority leader of the senate getting engaged to an eversource executive.

  19. Wendy Cusick

    Thank you Mr Bruce, well written statement and observations.
    There’s so much damage in certain sections of town and surrounding communities, they can’t even reroute onto other circuits.
    That’s what they did for us. We didn’t see large trucks. You don’t have to. I just saw the small Eversource pickup. The supervisor isolated what I called the “where the bomb went off” on an very deep interior street and two hours later a very large section of 2,500 to 3,500 plus residents received power back.
    It”s just isolated clusters of two or three houses here and there where the damage is back on deep interior streets.

  20. While I admire the hard-working utility crews, let’s look at the forest, not the trees (no pun intended). CT has the 4th highest utility costs in the country after Hawaii, Alaska, and Rhode Island. There is no plausible reason for this, beyond weak regulators. PURA doesn’t do nearly enough to assure reasonable rates and service. It’s 8 years since Sandy, yet it’s SOS (Same Old Sh**).

  21. Adrian Hinojos

    Great color by Iain. I appreciate that he took the time to write about what he sees during his rides, and also, to put things into perspective.

    My two cents: people should get solar plus storage, and avoid some of the issues with their utilities.

    Full disclaimer, I am a solar professional.

  22. Bill Boyd Staples 66

    They trees make Westport beautiful and they make it vulnerable. Simple.

  23. Edward Bonaham

    Eversource dropped them ball.
    Eversource was a asleep at the switch.
    Eversource has crews in other states and left it to the other companies to come in.

    Every single company I have spoken to, from Quebec, SC, NC, NJ, IA, OH, and many other states have all had the same attitude…Eversource, has no clue what they’re doing when it comes to delegating physical groundwork. The ground guys, which majority have good work ethic and knowledge, are being misled And mismanaged by greed and lack of care to the mission of their job.

    The high charges we saw in July, could’ve been prevented. This reactivity charade has to end, and proactivity must take control.

    We pay the highest electric utilities in the entire country.

    We get it Iain, it was a harsh storm. That does NOT make it acceptable for the behavior and lack of action put forth excusable in any form.

    People have been without power for six days.

    People can not flush their toilets, shower or baths. The necessities of our lives have been abruptly halted by lack of care, lack of empathy and lack of humanity. Residents were trapped on roads. How about the homebound trapped residents that have health complications, or chemotherapy? Or have nurses around the clock for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia?

    Spare us your with ride of the lifetime story. Our town is 20 square miles of land.

    All talk no action, just like neversource.

    Mr Harrington, right on the money with the right answer.

    You could learn a thing a two from him Iain…maybe not.

  24. Mark Bachmann

    I’ve lived in communities where lesser storm damage resulted in longer power outages than what we just experienced. I think it’s healthy to keep the pressure on Eversource and on our local politicians – complacency on any of their parts needs to be forestalled – but as Mr. Bruce suggests here, let’s try to hold it in perspective and leave the pitchforks in the barn. I’m sure they could have done better but probably not by too much.

    • Too late. Too many pitchforks are already out of the barn and inches away from Eversource’s ass.

    • Frannie Southworth

      Don’t speak of this in past tense Mark because it’s not over for a third of Westportears! We are one of the 28% in Westport who still don’t have power, and we are not scheduled to until midnight tomorrow or Wednesday. 9 days is too long. If you read my earlier comment, the reason we didn’t have a more reliable response is because our Eversource workers went to other states to make overtime pay, knowing full well a storm was coming. We had to wait three days for people to come from out of town to start clearing trees and wires!!!!!
      We are a senior couple and it is very hot today!!! I am truly glad that you and many of my friends got power back, but many of us still have not. Eversource left us in the lurch.

  25. I’m a former Westporter jumping in late, so I hope I’m not being repetitive.

    To the point about burying cables — OK, it may cost $1M per mile, but let us assume the wiring strung up on poles has a useful life of 40 years, the proper analysis compares the full capital and maintenance costs over that life cycle.

    Just a guess, underground wiring, done properly, requires less maintenance than wiring strung on poles.

    Also, keep in mind that Aquarion already has trenches to every home and commercial building, so there’s not a lot of costly new digging required.

    And while the utilities are at it, how about phone and cable TV in the same trenches?