Lamont calls for probe of state utilities

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By Steve Barlow, Republican-American

A police officer and worker block off a section of Maria Hotchkiss Road in Prospect Wednesday where a tree and wires fell during Tuesday’s storm. The road was closed at the intersection of Scott Road. -ELIO GUGLIOTTI

HARTFORD — Less than a week after asking regulators to probe consumers’ skyrocketing electricity bills, Gov. Ned Lamont called for another investigation of the state’s public utilities.

The focus of Lamont’s ire Wednesday was the preparation and response of Eversource, which provides power to most of the state, and United Illuminating, which serves 17 mostly shoreline towns, to Tropical Storm Isaias.

The storm tore through the state Tuesday and left hundreds of thousands of customers in the dark. Eversource and UI officials say it could take more than a week to restore everyone’s power.

Lamont described the utilities’ preparedness as “wholly inadequate” and called for the state Public Utility Regulatory Authority to check what specific steps the utilities took in advance of the storm, which packed top winds of 68 mph.

This is not the first time Connecticut residents have faced lengthy blackouts. Hurricane Irene and an October snowstorm in 2011 and Super Storm Sandy in 2012 also produced widespread, long-term outages.

“Several years ago, Connecticut experienced large-scale outages that took days to recover from. We were told the utilities were improving their resources so that they can be prepared for the next time Mother Nature inevitably hits again,” Lamont said. “And now here we are with a wholly inadequate response to another storm. I’m asking PURA to begin this investigation so that we can determine whether the companies are meeting their legal obligations and whether any penalties need to be applied.”

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, joined Lamont’s call for an investigation, requesting a legislative investigation and audit of Eversource.

The Senate chairman of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee said his first bill after being elected was to compel Eversource to increase its workforce so that it wouldn’t rely as heavily on mutual aid contracts with other utilities during cleanups.

“Over a period of 15 years, their staffing went down, down, down,” he said. “Their disproportionate reliance on mutual aid has always bothered me.”

Needleman said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the heavy damage spread across several states, it will not be easy for Eversource to get assistance from other utilities.

“What have we gotten for our money?” Needleman asked. “We have some of the highest rates in the country.”

Last week, consumers opened their mailboxes to find their electricity bills had jumped significantly, many by $100 or more. Eversource attributed the higher bills to a hot summer that increased demand as well as state and federal legislative mandates.