With the performance of Eversource Energy suddenly a potent election-year issue, the chief executive of the publicly traded utility has agreed to testify before a state legislative committee whose leaders proposed sweeping regulatory reforms Monday.
Jim Judge, the Eversource chairman and president who largely disappeared from public view after a massive power outage, will appear before the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, whose leaders outlined bipartisan regulatory review legislation.
“My sense is that there is a better understanding of the fact that he didn’t manage a number of things well, including the P.R. side of this, where I think they really screwed up,” said Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, the committee co-chair.
Eversource, which delivers electricity to most of Connecticut and large swaths of Massachusetts and New Hampshire as a regulated monopoly, struck a relatively contrite tone in confirming Judge’s willingness to testify later this month about what was a nine-day outage in some places after Tropical Storm Isaias.
“While we mobilized the largest restoration effort Connecticut has seen in order to get the power back on for every customer, we understand the frustration our customers and political leaders are feeling,” said Tricia Taskey Modifica, the Eversource media relations manager. “We’ll participate in the regulatory and legislative process to ensure we understand why this storm had such a severe impact, and ultimately to figure out what can be done better.”
Judge was roundly condemned for his refusal to join Gov. Ned Lamont in taking questions outside Eversource offices on Aug. 5, a day after 800,000 Eversource customers lost power after a tropical storm veered to the west, leaving most of Connecticut on the windward side of a storm that snapped branches and uprooted trees.
At the same press event, the chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority said that Eversource badly underestimated the threat of the storm by preparing for between 125,000 and 380,000 outages.
The performance of Eversource and to a lesser extent the smaller United Illuminating, which serves New Haven, Bridgeport and 15 other communities, has sparked an investigation by PURA and bipartisan calls for a deep review of how well the utilities perform and the state regulates them.
Needleman and his energy co-chair, Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, and the panel’s two ranking Republicans, Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme and Rep. Charles Ferraro of West Haven, outlined a “Take Back Our Grid Act,” less an actual bill than ambitious list of topics to be potentially tackled in a special session next month and the regular session in January.
Among other things, the legislation would set minimum staffing levels, increase PURA’s power to impose civil penalties, making the utilities liability for damages caused by certain outages, and impose a rate freeze for two years.
With new leadership at PURA and on the Energy and Technology Committee, Needleman said the opportunity exists for a fresh look at complex system.
In Connecticut, whose residents pay some of the highest electric rates in the U.S., the production of electricity is a largely deregulated commodity sold in a market that is competitive, but only within state-set parameters. The delivery of that electricity to homes and business is a regulated business with two major players that enjoy geographic monopolies, Eversource and UI.
“I’m really committed to going back to ground zero on this,” Needleman said. “I think we really need to look at how we got here.”
The hearing was originally called to examine the factors behind an Eversource rate increase, then dramatically broadened after the blackout.
“These two events have convinced us that it is time we had a serious conversation on what can be done to protect the ratepayers going forward,” Ferraro said.
The part-time General Assembly consistently has proven unequal to the task of reforming the complex system. Eversource and UI are among the most influential interests at the State Capitol, and the complexity of the issue in most years has been an ally to company efforts to maintain the status quo.
“We’re just outgunned. We’re outgunned and out-bought,” Needleman said.
The hearing is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 27. Lawmakers would prefer to question Judge face-to-face, but a video conference in more likely, given the social-distancing precautions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arconti said a special session could address limited issues involving requiring the utilities to reimburse ratepayers for the loss of food and medicine due to an outage that he says was prolonged by poor planning before the storm and communication in its aftermath.
“The breakdown in communication that occurred between the utilities and their customers and the utilities and local election officials of our municipalities was completely unacceptable,” he said.
Needleman is currently the first selectman of Essex and Formica once held that role in East Lyme. Both said the utilities’ failed to communicate with customers and local officials.
“Let’s try to bring some relief now and take a deeper dive in next year’s legislative session, talking about things like reinventing utilities and grid modernization,” Formica said.
Judge was jubilant in a message to shareholders in March about the company’s reliability and profitability, assuming them Eversource was coming off its “most successful year ever.”
The Eversource trustees agreed, paying Judge a $3 million bonus that swelled his compensation for the year to $19.8 million. Shareholders didn’t object. The stock price had soared from $65.04 to $85.07, a gain of 31% over 12 months. And the reliability of the company’s electric distribution system was in the industry’s top 10%.