After Philippe: Marconi voices frustration with Eversource

As Tropical Storm Philippe’s winds and lashing rain gave way to blue skies and balmy temperatures last week, residents were left wondering how long it would be before the lights came back on.

Annoyance turned to outright anger — quickly — as Eversource’s plan to restore power and clear roads stretched well into Wednesday. School was canceled twice, and 2,300 homes lost power.

“This was not a Sandy or an Irene,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

For the school district, the two closings pushed the last day of school back to June 14, leaving an additional eight days in the school calendar that the district can use for storm closings.

“We are fortunate that there are several days built into the month of June that can accommodate these early school closures,” said Superintendent Karen Baldwin.

Police and town emergency services both noted that the town’s new communication system installed in August of last year performed flawlessly through the storm.

Police Capt. Jeff Kreitz said he believed the program of trimming back dead limbs “reduced the amount of outages here in town.”

Rate hike

Eversource’s dull response time frustrated Marconi all the more as the power company announced just days before the storm hit that it would be hiking rates for its customers.

In a letter to the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) on Oct. 27, Eversource gave notice that it will file an application to raise its rates on Nov. 22 “to address a revenue operating deficiency.”

The rate increase would be phased in over the next three years, starting with a $255.8-million overall price hike beginning May 21, 2018 — “an average increase of approximately 6.79% over total currently authorized revenues for all customers and rate classes combined.”

“The rate amendment is necessary to enable [Eversource] to recover the costs of providing safe and reliable electric service to its 1.2 million electric customers,” the notice says elsewhere, as well as “excellent customer service,” and to “provide a fair return to investors.”

But the first selectman characterized Eversource’s request differently.

“I find that very interesting at this point — if not insulting,” Marconi said.

“They don’t have enough trucks, they don’t have enough line crews,” he said. “Eversource has become a bottom-line company, no longer a powerline company.”

Marconi said there has been opposition to the measure in both parties across the board. He suggested the rate hike would likely come up in the Council of Small Towns.

Delayed response

Dick Aarons, the town’s emergency management director, emphasized that the real danger lies in people coming into contact with live wires.

That can dull response times and stretch out recovery efforts, as crews have to work carefully and wait for Eversource to “ground” downed electrical wires.

“Things have changed a lot with electrical distribution in the last 15 years,” he said. “The voltages are a lot higher — it used to be you could go out with a big fiberglass stick and push the wires out of the road. You can’t do that anymore — it’ll kill you.”

Still, the response time was not what the town hoped for.

“Twenty-four hours after the storm, we had one truck,” Marconi said. Before Tuesday night, he said, Eversource was still focused on clearing roads, not restoring power.

“Eversource really didn’t start restoration until late Tuesday,” Aarons told The Press.

In contrast, the first selectman pointed out, public works crews with the town managed to clear road obstacles that did not interfere with electrical wiring by Monday night.

“This is another thing that drives people nuts,” Aarons said. “They see the people working, and then they go away.”

The Eversource crews have to work in phases, Aarons explained, first ensuring that any downed wires are made safe before beginning to clear roads.

Marconi urged residents to sign up for emergency alerts through the town’s website — something he said only about 3,700 residents have done so far.

Looking forward, Marconi and Aarons said they hope Eversource will start to use reports of damage sent to them by Ridgefield Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), which send photos of damage back to the director’s office, along with a GPS location.

Currently, Eversource does not take that data into account, relying on reports from only its own patrollers.

“We’ve seen many occasions where this patroller is pulled over with a map out on the hood of a car scratching his head, saying, ‘Where am I?’” Marconi said.

That’s frustrating from a municipal government perspective, he said, especially where the town has resources in place to help Eversource do its job more efficiently.

“Send us a truck and let us begin working with a highway crew,” Marconi said. “We’ll be a lot faster than trying to send 20 trucks here at the last minute.”

To sign up for emergency notifications, and for information on emergency preparedness, visit the town website at ridgefieldct.org/government/pages/emergency-preparation-resources.

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