Friday, November 04, 2011

Utilities Still Working To Restore Power Across Northeast

While PSE&G and Jersey Power and Electric are close to getting the lights turned back on for all of its residents, Connecticut consumers aren't so lucky. There are more than 300,000 customers still without power.

Why did Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy wait until yesterday to activate the National Guard to help with clearing trees and debris from roads? Activating the National Guard would have freed up resources and helped localities get reconnected to the grid faster.

Yet the real problems lie with Connecticut Light and Power (CLP). They've done so much wrong in handling this crisis that someone will likely do a case study about how a utility shouldn't function.
But giving Northeast, specifically its Connecticut Light and Power subsidiary, a divine pass is like absolving Lehman Brothers of any blame for its demise in 2008. Like financial firms, utilities need to manage risks. And they have it relatively easy: much of the task simply involves clearing overhanging trees and other hazards from power lines.

Yet according to regulatory filings, Connecticut Light and Power cut its maintenance spending by 26 percent, from $130 million in 2008 to $96.5 million last year. Put simply, that seems to suggest that one in every four trees that could have been trimmed was left untouched, though the company says the maintenance line was depressed by a deferral of expenses for accounting purposes.

The utility showed the same kind of tin ear as some banks, too. Even as customers still faced a week without electricity after Irene struck, the Connecticut Light and Power boss, Jeff Butler, suggested any restoration costs should be covered by increasing electricity rates — when Connecticut’s power is already the most expensive in the continental United States. Mr. Butler later backtracked. But this week he suggested the weekend snowstorm came without warning — words he was again forced to eat.

There’s even a near-perfect model of how Connecticut Light and Power could have done the job better. Norwich, Conn., a city of 40,000, has owned its own electric utility, as well as those for sewage, gas and water, for 107 years. Norwich Public Utilities’ customers pay, on average, a bit less than Connecticut Light and Power’s. Yet after this past weekend’s snow dump, power was out for only about 450 of its 22,000 customers — and for no more than an hour. As of Thursday morning, nearly half a million Connecticut Light and Power customers were still waiting for the lights to go on.

That’s not luck, either. After Irene hit, just 13 percent of the city’s customers lost their power for more than a day. Within three days, the whole of Norwich had been restored. It took more than a week for Connecticut Light and Power to fully restore power.

That makes it seem odd that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has tended to appear alongside Connecticut Light and Power’s Mr. Butler and to support the utility, even though far more customers lost power than should have and restoration proceeded too slowly. There’s solid numerical evidence to justify Mr. Malloy’s berating Connecticut Light and Power and calling for Mr. Butler’s head on behalf of the citizens of his state.

In contrast to Connecticut Light and Power, Norwich’s electric unit last year increased operations and maintenance spending by 11 percent, to $2.9 million. Put another way, in 2010 Norwich allocated about $132 a customer to this line item in its accounts. Connecticut Light and Power reported maintenance, unadjusted for deferred expenses, of $96.5 million, or around $78 per client.
They refused to get mutual assistance calls in before the storm hit so that they didn't have prepositioned units ready to respond. They didn't take the weather forecasts seriously enough - even after everyone in the region knew that the early season snows would bring down trees because most trees still had their leaves. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that snow of any significance would lay low trees and power lines when the leaves are still on the trees.

CLP can't make its own self-imposed deadlines for service restorations, and that's completely unacceptable, particularly in light of the way that the company has cut back on basic maintenance.

It's abundantly clear that CLP failed its customers, but it further appears that the state of Connecticut failed its citizens as well in not taking appropriate steps to handle the natural disaster. When the state saw that CLP wasn't getting the job done in any semblance of a timely manner, it needed to act. The governor failed to do so.

Someone must be held responsible for the ongoing failures, and that includes both the utility and the governor.

Back in New Jersey, the last few remaining outages are being dealt with and some single customers may be out of power for longer because the damage affects more than the power line to their homes or businesses (taking out the lines all the way to the utility box/meter for example). Some towns are already out of snow days and are contemplating extending the school year to meet requirements.

Municipalities around the region are also dealing with how to clear tree debris. Some, like Fair Lawn and Wayne, are allowing residents to bring all tree debris to the curb and crews will pick them up if they bundle the trees/branches and cut them down to size. Landscapers will have to cart away tree debris.

However, in Mountainside, New Jersey, the town workers are cutting branches along the right of way but are then throwing the tree debris back on to the properties for the owners to remove. That's an absolutely asinine policy - but the town claims that they aren't responsible for removal.

And for a real estate market that is already rocky, the loss of so many trees means a reduction in curb appeal. Healthy trees can add up to 10% in value to a home. I'm spending quite a bit of money to get the damaged trees on my property pruned following the storm. Healthy trees were most affected by the storm since they still were in full leaf.

No comments: