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    More work to do on utility accountability

    March 22, 2023 - Hearst Connecticut Media Editorial Board


      In advance of what threatened to be a devastating tropical storm in 2021, Gov. Ned Lamont had a message for the utilities that deliver power to millions of Connecticut residents. "Don't overpromise and underdeliver," he said. "Do the opposite."

      This was in the wake of another storm a year earlier that had crippled the state, leaving the lights off for a week or more in some places. Lamont and other state officials were warning the utilities that a similar performance would not be tolerated.

      The message was taken to heart. It may or may not be connected, but since then utilities have regularly warned of debilitating impacts from incoming storms, with dire predictions of weeks without power in advance of Tropical Storm Henri in 2021 and similar worries about widespread power failures after the snow and wind that hit Connecticut just days ago. The utilities seem to think that if they predict the worst and it doesn't come to pass, everyone will feel better about their performance.

      No one is buying it.

      The truth is that the utilities haven't been truly tested since 2020, when their performance in returning power to the state was sorely lacking after Tropical Storm Isaias. Since then there have been some near-misses, but nothing that has put them to the test to see if reforms have been effective.

      In the meantime, rates have greatly increased, and it's fair to say customers are wondering what they're getting in return for all the extra money they're paying. Exorbitant compensation for executives and record profits don't make anyone feel better.

      In response, the General Assembly has attempted to, in its words, "Take Back Our Grid." Initial reforms passed after Isaias haven't had the desired effect, and so legislators are trying again. It's a step worth taking.

      Once again, the aim is to take on the high cost of electricity, its reliability and oversight by state regulators. Nothing about the process is simple. Eversource, which serves most of Connecticut, operates in many fields across multiple states, and only some of what it does falls under what customers expect from a utility. But everyone sees the bills, and everyone feels the pain when the lights go out, and so it's incumbent on legislators to make the system better.

      Among other things, the bill up for debate in the Capitol would give the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority more say in setting rates and move costs for things like lobbying away from ratepayers and toward shareholders, where they should have been all along.

      Few people understand how a company can have a responsibility toward shareholders while also fulfilling a public need, such as keeping the lights on. It doesn't make much sense, but this is the deregulated environment a previous Legislature created and that everyone now has to live with. The best that can be done now is to make it as transparent and effective as possible.

      That means holding utilities accountable. Connecticut has more work to do to take back its grid, and the current legislation looks like it will advance that cause. The Assembly should pass it.


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