Opinion: CT needs a modernized, resilient electrical grid

Power lines running atop the Walk Bridge in Norwalk in 2016.

Power lines running atop the Walk Bridge in Norwalk in 2016.

File photo

Tropical Storm Isaias left more than 1 million Connecticut residents and businesses without power in August 2020. Over a year later, the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority reached a $103.4 million settlement with Eversource Energy to hold the company accountable for its lack of preparedness. But this doesn’t fully get at the root of the problem.

Preventing future storms from affecting Connecticut residents the way Isaias did will require a major overhaul of the state’s power grid.

Climate change is making Connecticut increasingly vulnerable to power outages due to impacts like sea level rise, flooding and storms that are more frequent and more intense. More settlements with Eversource will be needed each year to keep up with climate change unless we choose to be proactive and invest in grid modernization and resilience.

There is no simple solution for improving Connecticut’s grid, and some of the most effective options, like putting electrical wires underground, have long been dismissed by the state and utilities claiming high costs and difficulty. Eversource announced in August that it would be making improvements to its emergency response and some upgrades to its transmission infrastructure, but nothing the company plans to do is on the scale of action that we need.

Hardening the system is one of the most important things PURA and Eversource can do to shorten the duration of power outages. Grid hardening in Connecticut has generally been limited to tree-trimming, but it can involve more advanced solutions. Eversource should be burying power lines underground, particularly in vulnerable places and areas of strategic importance, and investing in technologies like wind-resistant steel poles and wires that disconnect without dragging down multiple poles.

Another solution is to decentralize our energy systems through technologies like battery storage, rooftop solar, and microgrids. Distributed generation is a good backup system for homes and businesses and can help power essential community services during outages. It can also help avoid the health risks posed by the diesel generators currently used for backup power. Options abound, and it can be left up to communities and individuals to decide what works best for them.

A common argument against grid modernization is that any major changes would require passing costs along to ratepayers. But this is not the only financial option, as Eversource has the resources and the incentive to pay for necessary investments in its own infrastructure. And even if some costs must be paid by ratepayers, avoiding making important changes is only delaying the problem and making it more costly for ratepayers in the long run.

Power outages are more than an inconvenience for Connecticut residents — they’re harmful to public health, cause economic hardship and reinforce social inequity in the state.

Power outages are a health risk, especially for vulnerable people like the elderly and those with health issues. Outages during the summer hurricane season force people to suffer in hot weather, which will only become worse with climate change. Losing power during winter storms is something we’re familiar with, too, and can be especially dangerous for residents with electric heating systems and homes that are not adequately weatherized.

Power outages also cause economic hardship for community members, like dealing with the unexpected cost of replacing spoiled food or missing work because businesses are closed. Getting an average of $35 back on electricity bills from the Eversource settlement is a good thing for Connecticut residents, but it is just a small one-time payment. For low and middle-income Connecticut residents, losing power has impacts that linger long after the lights come back on.

Low-income communities and communities of color are often the first to lose power and the last to have their power restored, as was the case with the devastating winter power outages in Texas earlier this year. These potential inequalities are something that PURA should be investigating when engaging with Eversource on power outage prevention.

Moving forward, our guiding questions should be: how do we keep the power on for as many people as possible after storms? How do we make sure the most vulnerable among us are protected from the health and economic impacts of losing power? And how do we prepare our energy infrastructure for the changes that climate change promises to bring?

Matilda Kreider, from Branford, is a graduate student studying environmental justice at the University of Michigan.