Municipal utilities faring better after two big storms

Lost in the storm over storm response by the state’s two major utilities is the fact that about a half-dozen communities are at least partially served by neither. They are served by municipal electric utilities, which for the most part has meant fewer outages and faster restoration when the power did go out during this storm and tropical storm Irene two months ago.

“The situation is there is no situation,” said Mike Hughes, communications manager for Norwich Public Utilities, at 107 years old, among the youngest of the municipal electric utilities in the state. At the peak, he said, 450 of their 22,000 customers lost power. “And they weren’t out for more than an hour.”

During Irene, at 7 p.m. the night of the Sunday Aug. 28 storm, about 11,600 customers were without power. By 10:30 that night, half of them were already restored. Everyone was back by Wednesday evening.

That relatively rapid response scenario has played out similarly among the other municipal utilities, each citing the same reasons: devout attention to tree trimming and the fact that it’s a local operation.

“Our guys, our line crews and the staff — we know the city,” Hughes said.

He and other municipal utility officials universally had kind words for Connecticut Light and Power’s and United Illuminating’s efforts in both storms, all saying it was unfair to compare storm responses.

“When dealing with 800,000 customers out of service and dealing with them statewide, you have a different problem than we have,” Paul Yatcko, director of Groton Utilities, in business for 108 years, now with 14,500 customers in Groton and Bozrah.

He said this storm caused a handful of widely scattered outages, all of which were fixed by late Sunday. During Irene, with the coastline battered, there were 11,769 customers out – about 70%. With eight line crews and two from out-of-state through the mutual aid system of NEPPA – the Northeast Public Power Association, a consortium of the 79 electric light companies that are owned and operated by the communities they serve, Groton was lit up by 5 p.m. on Wednesday after Irene and Bozrah, by 10 p.m.

“It comes down to scale and distance,” Yatcko said. “You’re just dealing with a problem that’s orders of magnitude smaller and it’s right in front of you; it’s not all over the state.”

Since the mid 1970s, the municipal utilities in the state have owned the nonprofit Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative, CMEEC, which purchases power for them at rates that historically have been lower than those of CL&P and UI, though with slightly higher equipment costs, that’s not a guarantee.

But the municipals are still somewhat beholden to CL&P and UI. Their power, in almost all instances, travels through CL&P’s and UI’s feeder lines. If those lines go down, their customers go dark.

That’s what happened in Jewett City during Irene. Only about 500 of the 2,300 electric customers of its utility – founded in 1897 – suffered damage. But the whole town went out because CL&P’s feeder lines went down. The individual damages were repaired in less than a day, but it was several more hours before CL&P restored its lines said Ken Sullivan, director of public utilities, who went out with his only two linemen to help make the repairs, but ironically lives over the border in Griswold where he had no power for five days after Irene.

This time, “we had zero outages,” he said. The secret: tree trimming. “We know the territory like the back of our hand. Knowing it as intimately as we do gives us a leg up when we’re tree trimming–we know where to focus.”

South Norwalk, one of two municipal electric utilities that handle different parts of the city, is one of the few places in the state where tree trimming is barely a consideration – about half the wiring is underground.

“The center of city had underground as far back as anyone can remember,” said general manager John Hiscock. Even with a tough hit from Irene, his crews were freed up to help CL&P the day after that storm. This time, his crews were finished with the scattered outages and helping CL&P by Sunday. ” I live in Wilton,” he said. “I probably won’t see my power till Friday.”

Underground wiring is tremendously expensive to do on it’s own, so since the 1960s anytime there was a major redevelopment or street project in South Norwalk, it was added. That can cut two ways, Hiscock said. It’s less susceptible to storm damage, but when something does go wrong, it’s harder to figure out what and where and generally more expensive and dangerous to fix it.

“On balance,” he said though. “I prefer an underground system by far.”

Wallingford Public Utilities, established in 1899, probably faced the biggest challenge during this storm, with 4,000 of it’s 24,400 customers out at the peak on Saturday – similar in scope to Irene when about 6,000 lost power.

With help from crews from Groton and Norwich, by Monday morning, 3,000 had been restored. Given the situation in neighboring communities like Cheshire, where nearly the entire town was out, Director of public utilities George Adair wasn’t complaining.

“The advantage is that we’re one of the town departments and can obviously work very closely with public works, fire and police,” he said. They were working out of a single emergency response center, he said, in an integrated way government can achieve better than the large utilities. “Everybody’s right there, literally shoulder to shoulder.”

Even with the municipal utility storm success stories, and their long history of better electric rates, the phone is not ringing off the hook at CMEEC from towns looking to establish their own.

Julie Cammarata, director of government, regulatory and public affairs said once they discover that part of what it would take to do that is to purchase the electricity infrastructure in their town.

“It’s virtually impossible,” she said.