By TEO INGA and REGINA LONCAREVIC
In the midst of a pandemic, an economic depression comparable to that seen in the 1930s, and a looming eviction crisis, Connecticut residents were hit with another storm. This time it was an actual storm. On Tuesday, Aug. 4, the tropical storm Isaias hit Connecticut. The winds threw tree branches into above-ground power lines, leading to widespread power outages impacting over 800,000 Eversource customers. Days later, many are still without power. “I think it stinks,” said one Tolland resident. “We’ve been through this before,” she continues, “they could have been better prepared.”
The energy company Eversource assures the public it’s doing its best to restore electricity, but to many Connecticut residents this type of long-term outage is what they’ve come to expect from the company. The 2011 Halloween nor’easter left hundreds of thousands of residents without power, including heat, for more than a week.
Hurricane Sandy in 2012 similarly led to mass power outages across the state. Eversource— then known as CL&P— came under scrutiny for its poor preparation and response to the storms. The energy company has spent the last decade supposedly updating infrastructure to prevent against these sorts of widespread outages; however, this seems to only be reflected in the steadily increasing rates customers pay for power.
Let’s take a closer look at what Eversource could have done to prevent this recent mass power outage and how much it would have cost them relative to the profits they bring in.
After the storm cleared, news of mass outages began pouring in from nearly every town in Connecticut. A 2018 article by Thomas E. Worthley, a professor of forestry at the University of Connecticut, gives scientific background on the threat to Eversource’s outdated energy infrastructure exacerbated by climate change and capitalist forest management.
The article detailed the severity of damage to our state’s forests as a result of prolonged droughts and the introduction of invasive species, such as the gypsy moth and ash tree boher. In significant parts of the state, scientists observed as much as 80-90% canopy loss. This rapid die-off of trees in such a short period of time meant Connecticut now had many still-standing dead trees slowly becoming too brittle to withstand the stress that live trees can typically endure. Strong winds could now snap branches or even topple entire trees.
Not all these dead trees were ready to bring down power lines. The extension service honed in on trees that could wind up damaging infrastructure during a storm event. A tree was classified as high risk if it was a “large tree, with slight to severe lean toward the road and/or with most of its limbs and branches over the road, such that if not removed, half or more of the mass of the tree will, over time, eventually drop in the road.”
During observations within the town of East Haddam, Professor Wothley and his team discovered 134 “high-risk” trees on a 21-mile stretch of road; this works out to six high-risk trees per mile of road in a particularly pest-infested area. The article states that all these dead trees would become a hazard in 3-5 years. This was likely an assumption based on general wind speeds and low public interactions with the dead trees. However, the recent storm bumped up this hazard in 2020, because when tragedies come like rain they pour.
The article touched on how the small local budget allocated to deal with the problem was dwarfed by the sheer scale of tree loss. The cost of removal for a single tree is between $500 and $1000. The article calculated that the cost to remove every potentially high-risk tree from the 21 miles of road surveyed would be at least $67,000. For the 118 miles of local roadways in East Haddam alone, a rough estimate would place the price tag at $375,000 to clear all the high risk trees. The town allocated $25,000 to deal with the issue in 2018, and budget priorities likely haven’t changed there or in other towns across the state.
In the end, the issue was thrown to private landholders and concerned citizens after meetings between UConn, Eversource, Connecticut’s department of Transportation and its department of energy and environmental protection had concluded that dealing with the scale of the problem was beyond the groups’ abilities. But this was a lie to maintain maximum profitability for Eversource and reduce liability for the state—a lie that cost over 800,000 people their access to energy during a global pandemic.
The idea that Eversource is unable to finance tree-clearing operations or invest in underground power lines to safeguard Connecticut residents’ rights to electricity is plainly false. Assuming a higher price tag for tree clearing per mile of roadway at $4700 and taking into account the combined recorded totals for local and state highway mileages of roadways, which sits at 25,300 miles, the total maximum price tag for tree clearance across the whole state would be about $120 million. It is a large amount, to be sure, but it represents 6.21% of Eversource’s earnings for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years respectively.
The rate hikes before the storm
Eversource recently instituted a massive energy delivery rate hike, claiming increased usage. However, this directly contradicts the ISO’s regular reportings on New England’s electricity usage during the pandemic. These reports show an overall decrease in consumption since the start of COVID-19, even indicating that any short-term increases in residential demand are offset by large drops in commercial/industry usage.
Eversource specifically attributes increased residential usage to the abnormally high temperatures this summer, making the push for a new fossil-fuel plant in Killingly, Conn., all the more confusing. Public pressure has forced Eversource to suspend the rate increase, but warming temperatures along with quarantine recommendations has led to households needing to run air conditioners more often. Even without the rate hike, this poses an economic and racial injustice; consider that extreme heat is worse in redlined neighborhoods (likely due to less greenery and high asphalt coverage), and that Connecticut households were already struggling to pay energy bills before the pandemic.
How do we address the climate crisis?
Due to climate change, Connecticut can expect hotter summers and more intense heat waves. We need infrastructure change—not a fracked gas plant like the one proposed in Killingly. We need to move power lines underground, and we need to transition to renewable energy. Electric production in the state, as well as nationally, needs to stop being a privatized industry. As long as this continues, Eversource will refuse to pay for updates, while happily pocketing all of the profits.
Working people cannot remain energy prisoners at the hands of private capital. Market forces mean overpaying and underservicing for the power needs of the working class. The already begun environmental catastrophe means more storms, more damaged trees, and more massive power outages.
The Democratic and Republican parties are in the pockets of the private energy monopolies. Instead, all of the energy infrastructure must be nationalized and put under worker and community control in order to create climate change-resistant power distribution and end the emissions of CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases.
The technical road forward is becoming more and more obvious. Also crucially needed is a mass revolutionary party that can mobilize working and oppressed people in their millions to make it a reality.
Illustration by General Strike Graphics