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Town Power Companies Kept The Lights And Heat On

Municipal Electrics: Locally owned companies restored light, heat faster than the mega-companies did

November 06, 2011

It's just unacceptable that such a rich state as Connecticut, and one with such high electric rates, should sit in the cold and dark for days on end.

There were oases of light and warmth this past week, however. The one-two punch of Tropical Storm Irene in August and last week's freak October snow didn't cripple — at least for very long — the little power companies owned by a half-dozen towns and cities in Connecticut.

Maybe the towns and cities fed up with Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating ought to consider doing the job themselves, as South Norwalk, Wallingford and a handful of others do.

Smaller Is Better

Only 2 percent of the 22,000 customers of Norwich Public Utilities, to name one example, lost power on Oct. 29 — and only for a few hours. Storm Irene was a bigger blow, but virtually all Norwich's customers had power three days later.

Compare that with CL&P's record: Six days after the Oct. 29 snowstorm, 35 percent of its 1.2 million Connecticut customers were still in the dark. Three days after Irene struck, 44 percent of its customers were still out of power.

Norwich even sent a crew to help CL&P this past week, even though the tiny utility was still owed money from the bigger one for help after Tropical Storm Irene.

Norwich isn't unusual among municipal utilities. Jewett City was lit up like Oz when towns around it were dark as Hades after Storm Irene. It too runs its own utility. Two days after the Oct. 29 storm, only 1,000 of Wallingford Electric Division's 25,000 customers were without power.

What's the secret? For one thing, local utilities prepare. Wallingford trims trees more often than CL&P does. Norwich increased spending on operations and maintenance last year, unlike CL&P, which cut maintenance spending by 26 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to The New York Times. (CL&P says that spending figure was affected by deferred expenses.)

Just as important, a lot of municipal utility employees live in town and have to face their customers at the grocery store and gas pump. They hear about threatening tree limbs in everyday conversation, not just in crises. CL&P, on the other hand, answers to shareholders.

Smaller may just be more manageable.

Buying The Power Lines

Communities in other states — notably Boulder, Colo. — are looking into buying their power lines from the mammoth companies that own them. In Connecticut, by law, buying local utility assets would require a two-thirds vote of the city or town council and ratification by a majority of voters, among other steps.

The cost is obviously a hurdle. That may be why nearly all town and city power companies were established more than a century ago. Municipal utilities, however, return money to their communities. Groton Utilities gives back $3 million a year to its city. Norwich returns 10 percent of its gross revenues every year to the town (about $5 million last year). Such income could help communities pay off the bonds needed to buy a utility.

Once they catch their breath and take a hot shower, state and local leaders will have to prepare for a possible third punch that could throw Connecticut homes and businesses into another weeklong blackout this winter. The municipal model is looking more attractive with every storm.