Utilities' tree-trimming efforts fall short, critics say
Hearst investigation: Critics say utilities' tree-trimming efforts fall short
As the twin monster storms of 2011 lashed the state and knocked out power, the president of Connecticut Light and Power Co. was so afraid of threats from angry customers that he had a guard posted outside his Avon home.
Former CL&P President Jeffrey Butler said those fears became a major factor in his decision to abruptly quit his high-paying job in November 2011 and move to North Carolina.
"In this day and age, I take any threat seriously.... you read every day about people walking into offices," Butler said during his first interview since resigning. Butler said he had to "send my wife out of the state for 10 days" that year as workers restored service.
A year later, similar anger flared after Superstorm Sandy as frustrated customers in Fairfield menaced utility workers and others in Bridgeport reportedly threw eggs at United Illuminating Co. crews.
CL&P is now trying to shore up the state's power system -- and hopefully avoid future threats to its workers -- by embarking on a five-year, $300 million program to trim trees and improve power lines. But Hearst Newspapers has learned that the effort essentially amounts to work routinely performed by utilities in storm-prone areas like Connecticut.
To make matters worse, CL&P has failed to win federal money -- up to $200 million -- to modernize its system.
The twin 2011 storms were the worst in Connecticut history and left more than 1.5 million without power, some for as long as 11 days. Superstorm Sandy last fall followed a similar pattern, leaving more than 500,000 residents in the dark for more than a week.
To gain the state's support for a merger between CL&P's parent company, Northeast Utilities, and NStar, a huge Massachusetts utility, CL&P earlier this year agreed to devise a plan to improve grid reliability.
The result was a $300 million initiative to trim more trees and harden existing lines. While the effort falls short of the $2.2 billion CL&P initially proposed to bury power lines, the compromise strikes a balance between doing nothing and huge electric rate increases.
But more than half of the $300 million CL&P wants to spend would only bring the utility in line with the electricity industry's national "good" practice standard of pruning trees away from hot wires every four years, rather than the current five-year schedule.
Many fault the huge outages of the last two years on trees of all sizes and ages falling onto lines and knocking out power. Over the years, many suburban towns have resisted cutting trees to preserve the rustic feel of their communities.
"Since last year's storms, there is increased awareness that while trees are beautiful, they can also cause significant power interruptions for customers," said Bill Quinlan, CL&P's senior vice president for emergency preparedness.
"Because trees are the No. 1 cause of power outages, we are working closely with communities to identify and remove trees that pose a significant hazard," Quinlan said.
If approved by state regulators, tree trimming would increase by about $200 million over five years and the company would spend $100 million strengthening power lines. Trimming would rise from about $21 million a year now to $32 million in 2013, and grow to $77 million in 2017, when the program ends.
Ratepayers will ultimately foot the bill, but the price is modest: about $6 a month more for the average utility bill during the first years.
CL&P two years ago proposed going to a four-year tree trimming cycle, with the support of then-state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is now a U.S. senator, but state regulators declined for cost reasons.
"A four-year tree trimming cycle rate is common in the industry, generally considered a good utility practice," said CL&P Vice President Dana Louth in testimony to state regulators in July.
Similarly, the utility asked to fund a "smart meter" pilot program in 2009, but that, too, was rejected. Smart meters send daily readings to a utility, and that information can quickly pinpoint the location and magnitude of outages.
Connecticut regulators have been reluctant to ask ratepayers to fund such projects because the state's electric rates are already among the highest in the nation.
The current proposal would also upgrade some power lines on the grid, with a particular focus on the "most critical" electricity circuits, such as those serving hospitals and other needed services, and would replace some aging equipment. Those also are common industry practices.
But other high-tech solutions are available. Cities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., are installing "smart grids," which consist of computer-controlled electrical circuits that are looped to provide more than one source of electricity to a customer, said John Kelly, executive director of the Perfect Power Institute, an Illinois-based nonprofit that promotes electricity reliability.
"What CL&P has done so far is a day late and a dollar short," said Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, whose town has been hit hard over the last two years. "We have a very dissatisfied customer base."
"The past year has been all about improving storm response," Quinlan said. "With many enhancements already tested during this summer's storms, CL&P employees stand ready, stronger and better prepared to respond to whatever this winter may bring."
CL&P missed out on a federal Recovery Act grant program administered by the Department of Energy for smart grid investments. More than 90 utilities, including the one in Chattanooga, obtained a total of $3.5 billion in economic stimulus money for smart-grid enhancements. Six utilities with storm-outage problems like CL&P received the maximum $200 million each.
Theresa Gilbert, a spokeswoman for CL&P, said the utility's parent company, Northeast Utilities, applied for the Recovery Act federal funds for operations in Connecticut, New Hampshire and western Massachusetts, but didn't get the money "despite letters of support from the region's political and regulatory leaders and key stakeholder groups," said Gilbert.
"The past year has been all about improving storm response for CL&P. We learned a lot from (2011's) two historic storms and the reviews that followed."
"They've been pushed," said Blumenthal. "Their performance leaves a lot to be desired. Certainly they would not have made this investment without the strong incentive of both carrots and sticks."
State regulators and CL&P officials discussed the $300 million project during an Oct. 24 hearing as Sandy was developing in the Atlantic. State utilities official John Buckingham said at the time, "there's still a lot that's unknown" about the five-year plan.
"Because ratepayers will ultimately pay for these improvements, we will carefully scrutinize each part of the plan to insure that it is reasonable and cost-effective, and will, in fact, encrease system reliability," state Attorney General George Jepsen said.
Regulators plan to hold hearings over CL&P's response to Sandy in accordance with new laws that allow officials to fine utilities for poor response during outages. However, those laws may have taken effect a few days too late for fines to be issued over Sandy, but a review can still be conducted.
"This is what PURA did in its review of last year's storms when it found CL&P's performance "deficient and inadequate" in several areas of preparation and response to power outages," said Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which includes the Public Utility Regulatory Authority.
"PURA concluded that because the response to the storm was deficient, an appropriate reduction of its allowed return on equity will be considered in its next ratemaking proceeding as a penalty for poor management performance and to provide incentives for improvement," Schain said.
CL&P's reliability problems have been obvious for years, and recent investigations show they have worsened lately. Reliability statistics that don't include major storms show CL&P had longer outage averages last year than previous years except 2004, and the overall trend reflects no improvement.
United Illuminating also has been faulted for reliability and has not shown improvement. But its reliability has been better than that of the vastly larger CL&P, which covers 87 percent of the state. UI's communities in the Bridgeport region were hard hit by Superstorm Sandy, and pressure on the utility to improve is expected to increase.
One of CL&P's technical problems is that half of its primary wires or "conductors" consist of what is called "bare wire," which means it's less resistant to tree damage. Much of that wire system is more than 50 years old, utility documents show.
Some of the older utility poles and wires could fail without tree contact in winds exceeding 70 mph or in an ice storm, CL&P's Louth conceded.
Another huge issue affecting storm response is the size of the workforce. A Hearst investigation last year found that CL&P has shed more than 21 percent of its workforce since 1998 and 16 percent since 2004.
State investigators say the cuts caused CL&P to fall behind the needs of a growing infrastructure.
CL&P's relationship with its unions is "toxic," state regulators have said.
Tesei, the Greenwich first selectman, said community leaders need to know more about the other models being used around the country to improve electric reliability. "I think the public is interested in knowing more about what they can be doing or should be doing."