BERLIN, Conn. (AP) — In the nearly 18 months since a tropical storm and freak October nor'easter wreaked havoc on Connecticut's electrical system, the state's biggest utility has been strengthening its ties to town emergency crews and rolling out more technology in hopes of avoiding prolonged outages in the future.
As Connecticut Light & Power tries to improve its battered image, utility President William Herdegen said it doesn't want to have to continue apologizing for the back-to-back outages.
"I think our performance has allowed us to move away from apologizing to saying, 'Here's what we're going to do that makes things better going forward,'" Herdegen said in an interview at his office at the utility's headquarters in Berlin.
Hundreds of thousands of customers were in the dark for as long as 11 days after an autumn nor'easter brought down trees, limbs and power lines. Tropical Storm Irene cut the power to large swaths of Connecticut two months earlier.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy ordered a review of the utility's performance, the legislature enacted new standards for utilities and regulators criticized CL&P's "deficient and inadequate" response to the storms. A state review of the utilities' response to Superstorm Sandy in late October is pending.
Herdegen, a former executive at Kansas City Power & Light, faced significant public relations problems and low worker morale when he took the top job at CL&P in September. He replaced Jeff Butler, who resigned in the immediate aftermath of the storms.
"I think given the history here at CL&P after 2011, there was a big push by the company to restore confidence in our ability to manage storms and to improve reliability overall," he said.
In the five months since Herdegen's arrival, Superstorm Sandy slammed the Northeast, a wind storm raked parts of Connecticut on Jan. 30 and about a week later, a massive storm dumped more than 2 feet of snow on much of the state.
"I showed up on Sept. 11, which is how I remember it, and then we had a small, little storm and then we went into Sandy and then we've had a couple others," Herdegen said.
A key piece to improving power restoration was bolstering the liaison program with town emergency operations, providing more details on locations of workers and trucks to more quickly dispatch help, he said. Several town officials said the response immediately before and after Sandy was better than during the 2011 storms.
CL&P also relied more on technology since 2011. Using sensors during Sandy that limited power outages by shielding zones of 500 customers at a time, Herdegen said about 100,000 customers saw no outage or just a blink as power flickered. The sensors were shut off during Irene to avoid the hazards of downed wires.
Elin Swanson Katz, Connecticut's consumer counsel, said CL&P and United Illuminating are more responsive and better prepared than two years ago. For example, liaisons with municipalities are better trained and communications have improved, she said.
But if dissatisfaction with storm response persists among some towns, the state will investigate, she said. In addition, the lessons learned from 2011 may not necessarily be applied to other storms, Katz said. For example, officials faced fewer problems with keeping the power on than getting snow-removal equipment to where it was most needed during the Feb. 8-9 snowstorm.
"Practice makes perfect, and unfortunately we've had a lot of practice," she said.
CL&P is working out bugs in a "predictive modeling" project with the University of Connecticut that tries to warn of possible damage that could result from storms. Establishing models for summer storms is advancing, but more data are needed for winter storm models, Herdegen said.
"Many utilities are still at the point where you wait until it comes ashore, you see how much damage it is and you go about the process of getting people in," Herdegen said.
And he credited parent company Northeast Utilities' $5 billion purchase of NStar in Boston with helping expand the number of utility workers across southern New England.
In December 2011, Massachusetts utility regulators slapped National Grid, NStar and Western Massachusetts Electric Co., also a Northeast Utilities company, with fines of nearly $25 million for their response to Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm. The utilities are appealing.
Herdegen said improvements at CL&P are just beginning.
"When you have a significant event as we've seen, it doesn't turn around immediately because you have to win back your trust and credibility and that takes a little while," he said.