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Nonprofit Municipal Utilities Weather Storm Differently

by Steve Jensen |
Aug 13, 2020

Norwich Public Utilities crew after Tropical Storm Isaias (COURTESY OF THE NORWICH PUBLIC UTILITIES FACEBOOK PAGE)

While hundreds of thousands of families across the state were desperately waiting for their power to be restored into the weekend after Tropical Storm Isaias, lights and air conditioners had been back on in Norwich for days.

It’s not that the town escaped major damage. But because it operates its own not-for-profit electric utility, Norwich and the five other communities like it around the state are often able to achieve quicker restoration than large, for-profit power companies Eversource and United Illuminating.

“We had a ton of wires down and a ton of trees down,” Norwich Public Utilities spokesman Chris Riley said Tuesday. “It was one of the larger storms we’ve ever had. But we have a different business model (than the major utilities) and I believe we are much more nimble.”

Norwich had power knocked out to about 6,500 its 21,000 customers at the height of the storm. While other towns had to wait for the major utilities to coordinate with local public works crews to begin clearing damaged trees and wires, Norwich’s response team was making progress as soon as the winds subsided.

“Some customers were only out for an hour or two,” Riley said, and 99% of those affected were restored within 48 hours of the storm’s departure. “We always try to have exceptional restoration and there’s a great deal of pride in what we do.”

Municipal-owned utilities have another weapon that aids in their speed: they can call in crews from other states through a mutual aid program run by the Northeast Public Power Association. Norwich was able to quickly supplement its 15-member restoration crew with workers from Massachusetts.

Eversource in particular has drawn widespread criticism for what many view as a slow reaction in hiring out-of-state crews to help in restoration.

“Our mutual aid system is phenomenal,” said Justin Connell, president of the NEPA board of directors and spokesman for the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative, formed in 1976 by the state’s municipal utilities. “We’re very close-knit and the coordination is much easier.”

Municipal utilities are owned by taxpayers in the towns they serve, and the rates they charge are as much as 40% less than those of the for-profit power companies.

“We can keep the rates down because we don’t have to pay a dividend or worry about shareholders,” said Tony Buccheri, general manager of the municipal utility in Wallingford, which he said was spared the devastating damage experienced by many other towns.

About 4,000 of its 25,000 customers lost power, Buccheri said, and nearly all were restored within 48 hours with the help of NEPA mutual aid crews from Vermont and Massachusetts.

Other towns that have municipal utilities are Norwalk, Bozrah, Groton and the borough of Jewett City in Griswold.

The performance of the municipal utilities has prompted Congressman Joe Courtney, who represents much of eastern Connecticut, to implore state regulators to examine that business model as they investigate the preparedness and response of the major utilities for Isaias.

“In all the recent weather disasters of the past decade, municipal providers consistently outperform Eversource and UI in power restoration and service,” Courtney wrote in a letter to Marissa Gillett, chairman of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

“In every storm there are fewer interruptions and faster restoration. I strongly believe that even discounting factors such as the size of geography and the number of customers, the Public Utilities make a much greater commitment to having the staff and equipment to be self-sufficient,” Courtney wrote.