Critics decry Eversource, delivery charge increase during hearing  


By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — Critics of Eversource Energy slammed the state’s largest power distribution company over its handling of Tropical Storm Isaias during a hearing Monday on a delivery charge increase.

The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority heard calls to break up Eversource and to tie future rate increases to performance, including the restoration of power after outages.

A semi-annual administrative adjustment to delivery charges took effect July 1, but PURA temporarily suspended the increases on July 31 amid complaints from customers, state lawmakers and Gov. Ned Lamont.

Then, after PURA announced its review of the rate increase, Tropical Storm Isaias struck on Aug. 4, causing widespread and prolonged power outages throughout the service territories of Eversource and United Illumnating that affected about 1 million customers.

The rate increase resulted in significant jumps in monthly electric bills that angered Eversource customers, and then the power disruption that left many in the dark for days compounded the issue.

PURA Chairwoman Michelle P. Gillett stressed several times that the subject of Monday’s proceeding was the administrative increase in transmission charges.

She observed the performance of Eversource and UI during Tropical Storm Isaias is the topic of a separate PURA investigation, including the adequacy of each utility’s storm preparations and responses. The governor requested the review.

Also, the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee has scheduled a hearing Thursday to question representatives of Eversource, UI and PURA on the rate increases and storm response. Eversource CEO Jim Judge is expected to testify.

At the outset of the PURA hearing, Penni McLean-Conner, chief customer officer at Eversource, testified that she has read more than 1,600 emails and letters to PURA about the rate increases and listened to criticism from elected officials

“I want to tell you that the anger and depth of customer concern expressed this morning and throughout this ordeal is deeply troubling to me, yet understandable under the circumstances,” she said.

McLean-Conner also agreed that Eversource would stop referring to the administrative adjustment that took effect July 1 as a rate increase after Gillett objected to the company’s characterization. Gillett pointed out that the semi-annual administrative adjustments are not subject to the same level of review or approvals as rate increases.

Eversource officials continued to maintain that contributors to higher bills included increased electricity usage in July because of hot weather and a state mandate requiring Eversource to buy electricity from the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., urged PURA to consider several actions including breaking up Eversource and creating a publicly owned state-based utility.

“I think that the time for tinkering is over,” he said. “I think that we need to think big about becoming smaller, more responsive and smarter in the way we do public utilities and deliver power to the consumers of Connecticut.”

Lamont said during a news conference later Monday that he opposed this idea.

“I’m going to leave that up to PURA. I’m going to say that doesn’t sound like an answer to me.”

Blumenthal also urged utility regulators to roll back the July 1 rate increase, issue refunds for customers who suffered losses during Isaias and eliminate guaranteed profits for the company.

Lamont argued the electric utilities need to have their rate of return tied to the amount of time it takes to restore power during outages. He called on PURA to penalize Eversource and UI for poor responses.

“The disconnect between pay and performance is shocking to me,” said Lamont, a former cable television executive. “I think the days of getting a 9.5% rate of return for just showing up is over. I’m a business guy. I am happy to award people for outsized performance, but I also know the importance of penalizing people for underperformance, and right now I think our incentives are a disconnect.”

Attorney General William Tong proposed Eversource drop plans to ask PURA for a rate increase in 2021.

“People in Connecticut can’t pay more. They just can’t,” he said.

PURA also heard from angry Eversource customers at the end of the hearing who complained about high rates and poor service, and who also criticized PURA.