Angela Carella: Watching the skies -- and the power lines
Winter weather hasn't been bad so far, though we're only a third of the way through it.
Let's hope the snowstorms stay away for the rest of the season. Connecticut Light & Power needs time to crank up its five-year, $300 million System Resiliency Plan, which includes trimming trees, shoring up utility poles and installing heavier wire with a covering designed to resist damage from falling trees.
It's supposed to ensure that more lights stay on when storms hit.
State regulators approved the System Resiliency Plan last week. CL&P had to come up with one so regulators would OK last year's merger between its parent company, Northeast Utilities, and NStar, a huge Massachusetts utility. Northeast Utilities bought NStar for about $5 billion.
The merger created a $17.6 billion giant, one of the nation's largest energy delivery companies, with 3.5 million gas and electric customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. According to the chief executive of the conglomerate, Thomas May, the deal means more money for system improvements, more crews to fix power outages during storms, and more clout for negotiating lower rates for customers.
But that remains to be seen.
An investigation published last week by The Advocate revealed that CL&P's System Resiliency Plan is routine work for other utilities that serve storm-prone areas like Connecticut.
Most of the $300 million will be spent on tree trimming, but it will only bring CL&P into line with the utility industry's standard practice, which is to prune branches away from wires every four years.
CL&P has another problem, the investigation revealed. Half of its primary wires are "bare," meaning they lack a damage-resistant covering. Much of the wiring is more than 50 years old.
Many of the utility poles are old, too, and along with older wires, they don't need to be hit by branches to break. A high wind or a coat of ice or snow can bring them down, too.
And then there's the ever-shrinking crew of CL&P line workers, who reattach broken wires.
Over the last three decades CL&P cut the number of line workers 60 percent, even as the number of customers increased 40 percent. CL&P now has 397 line workers, down from 416 in 2011. Union officials with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said that in 1976 CL&P employed one line worker for every 2,000 customers. Now it's one for every 9,000 customers.
Customers have noticed the change. Year after year CL&P is rated near the bottom of the J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey of electric utilities. The investigation showed that one high-ranking executive in CL&P's parent company, Northeast Utilities, listed customer satisfaction as 10 percent of his annual goal. Other executives didn't list it at all.
The result is that CL&P's system is increasingly unreliable. In 2004 the utility reported its worst electricity reliability statistics since 1996, not counting major storms. After 2004, the statistics went up and down, mostly improving until 2010, when reliability slipped again. The statistics show that reliability, not counting big storms, now is about where it was in 2004.
The amount of time it takes to restore power increased, too. In 1999, the average duration of a power outage was 5.9 hours. In 2010 it was 9.3 hours.
The average outage ranged from a low of 2.9 hours in 2001 to a high of 9.4 hours in 2006. In 2011, the year of the devastating twin storms of Irene and the October nor'easter, the average power outage was nearly six days.
But none of the problems customers experienced affected CL&P profits, which increased more than 60 percent from 2000 to 2010.
And customers' problems didn't stop CL&P or Northeast Utilities executives from getting hefty pay hikes, justified by the bigger profits. After the merger, May, head of the new conglomerate, was able to cash in $5.1 million worth of stock, adding to his regular 2011 compensation of $9.2 million.
The pay increase for Charles Shivery, the just-retired head of Northeast Utilities and CL&P, was 500 percent over the last seven years. Shivery left with a pay package totalling $34.6 million.
That's significantly more than the $25 million CL&P added to its budget last year -- under intense public pressure -- to catch up with the tree trimming it neglected for so long, the reason your lights get knocked out for hours and days at a time.
CL&P isn't the only utility to behave this way. The deregulation of electric utilities in the late 1990s and early 2000s spurred a culture change in the industry nationwide. Utilities are increasingly owned by investors who value stock and dividend performance. Because utilities are monopolies, executives don't have to worry much about their captive customers.
CL&P's responses to the 2011 storms were disastrous. Tropical Storm Irene left 800,000 Connecticut customers in the dark for up to nine days, and the Oct. 29 snowstorm left 880,000 customers without electricity for up to 12 days.
The utility planned badly and reacted slowly, a state investigation found. Its response lacked organization, coordination and communication.
The state still is reviewing CL&P's response in October to Superstorm Sandy, which left 600,000 customers without power for up to a week.
Utility customers won't know whether CL&P's performance is improving until that report is in. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the skies and your fingers crossed that winter winds will remain at bay.