New York and Connecticut officials chided electric utilities across the Northeast for a "wholly inadequate" response as outages persisted in the aftermath of a storm that ravaged the coastal region.
Hurricane Isaias hit the Carolinas on Aug. 3 before being downgraded to a tropical storm as it moved further north up the east coast, leaving millions of people without power. Governors, regulators and other state officials were quick to criticize utilities later that week for being underprepared, even after millions of dollars spent on storm hardening measures.
The storm brought Consolidated Edison and other utilities in the Northeast their largest power outages since 2012's Hurricane Sandy. Utilities in the region say they are working as quickly as possible to restore power, and industry leaders note the storm was uniquely destructive.
"You've got a really wide swath of some of the most populous parts of the United States with huge trees down, 27 tornadoes all across the region following the storm that impacted everything from Florida to Maine. So let's not understate just how devastating this particular storm is," said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness for Edison Electric Institute.
"Utilities are in the business of delivering reliable service, and the public should know that I'm not interested in their excuses."
Chair of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority
New York and Connecticut governors directed state regulators to open an investigation into utilities handling of the storm, while New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, D, said his state was "pressing all the major utilities to restore power as quickly and safely as possible."
"Several years ago, Connecticut experienced large-scale outages that took days to recover from, and we were told that the utilities … were improving their resources so that they can be prepared for the next time Mother Nature inevitably hits again," Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, D, said in a series of Tweets, referring to Hurricane Sandy. "And now here we are, with a wholly inadequate response to another storm."
Following the governor's directive to investigate, Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) Chair Marissa Gillett called the utilities' response "simply unacceptable."
"I've heard the utilities tout significant investments in grid hardening and vegetation management made at the ratepayers' expense over the past decade," she said in a press release. "Frankly, I am deeply disappointed in seeing this play out in real time. Utilities are in the business of delivering reliable service, and the public should know that I'm not interested in their excuses."
Eversource Energy, Connecticut's largest utility, was granted a $124.6 million rate hike in April 2018 for system resiliency through 2020, following a $300 million five-year resilience plan implemented in 2013. On July 17 of this year, the utility filed with PURA to extend specific vegetation management programs into 2021 and 2022.
The utility's subsidiary Connecticut Light & Power has seen a slight decline in both frequency and duration of outages, according to PURA filings with the state legislature, though that data excludes outages caused by storms or planned outages under Connecticut law.
Gillett was nominated by Lamont to lead the commission last year, and indicated in her statement that she intended to see major reform under her watch, including within the pending rate case requests currently before regulators.
"The utilities will be afforded their day in court before PURA, but the governor did not recruit me to Connecticut to serve as a passive observer. The extensive grid modernization and energy affordability proceedings underway at PURA demonstrate my commitment to reforming the utility landscape in Connecticut, and I will not settle for anything less," she said.
In response to criticisms from state officials, Eversource sent an updated press release, indicating they are continuing to restore power around the state.
"We understand our customers' frustration and know it is an especially challenging time to be without power given the ongoing pandemic and hot summer weather," Eversource President of Regional Electric Operations Craig Hallstrom said in a statement. "The impact from this storm and its widespread damage can't be overstated. We've made good progress repairing incredible damage across our service territory."
Consolidated Edison, New York's largest utility, was also granted a rate hike — $113.3 million — for electric customers in 2020, scheduled to ramp up 4.7% and 4% in 2021 and 2022, respectively, to modernize its system.
Those strategies and programs are an important part of preventing wider destruction, said Aaronson, but should not be expected to prevent all outages.
"You cannot protect everything from everything all of the time," he said. "In addition to preparing ... you also have to respond and recover. ... And so I think the investments that you're seeing, both in preparing and protecting, are paying off."
Over 1.5 million customers across the Northeast remained without power as of Thursday night, but Aaronson said it was too early to judge whether utilities had planned adequately. 352,000 customers remained without power as of Sunday morning.
352k customers remain without power in the aftermath of #Isaias. 169k remain out in #CT, 145k remain out in #NY, 38k remain out in #NJ. Check out https://t.co/8cAFt3zGJe for detailed #poweroutage info.— PowerOutage.us (@PowerOutage_us) August 9, 2020
[2020-08-09 11:04 AM EDT] pic.twitter.com/0LC5Iy27PJ
1.5 million customers remain without power in the aftermath of #Isaias.— PowerOutage.us (@PowerOutage_us) August 6, 2020
579k remain out in #CT, ~32% affected restored
478k remain out in #NY, ~54% affected restored
435k remain out in #NJ, ~73% affected restoredhttps://t.co/8cAFt3zGJe #poweroutage
[2020-08-06 5:11 PM EDT] pic.twitter.com/anVghEpMKe
"We are approximately 48 hours since the storm cleared the area. And so I think it's early to be talking about whether or not this was an adequate response," he said.
There are a number of reasons why restoration times might be delayed, including downed trees blocking road access, according to Aaronson. Restoration is also often labor intensive during storms, requiring a large amount of manpower to do damage assessment and then begin reparations repairs. Crews from 33 states, Canada and the District of Columbia were on scene helping restore power across the Northeast as of Thursday afternoon, according to EEI.
Other stakeholders were also more sympathetic to the utilities' restoration times. The storm was "hard-hitting and short," said Richard Sobolewski, acting consumer counsel for the Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel, making it likely difficult to mitigate.
Some in the state have called for the utility to hire more linemen, but Eversource recently hired five more as part of a settlement agreement with the office on its rate case. "I don't know if that's an efficient use of resources" to add more linemen, said Sobolewski.
Utilities in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey said they were working as quickly as they could to restore power.
ConEdison and four other utilities plus Verizon Wireless will all be investigated by the New York Department of Public Service for their "apparent lack of adequate planning," according to a statement from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office. Spokespersons from ConEdison and other New York utilities including PSEG Long Island said they are making progress on restorations.
New York State Senator Joseph Addabbo, D, last year pushed for a bill to create a State Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate, citing extended power outages due to storms as a reason for a stronger consumer ally in the state.
"We need to learn from what happened here ... how do you prepare better going forward?" he said. "We need to see utility service as a right. Not a luxury but as a right."