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What If Norwich's Public Utility Was A Model For Connecticut

Norwich, Conn., Public Utility
Ebong Udoma
WSHU Public Radio
Norwich, Conn., Public Utility

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal has said ratepayers in some Connecticut towns have enjoyed low utility rates and fewer power outages for decades. That’s because 100 years ago, these communities created their own independent power source. And it stayed that way.

This week, Connecticut lawmakers continue to hold public hearings to re-evaluate the state’s relationship with its power companies, Eversource and United Illuminating, following their poor response to Tropical Storm Isaias. Blumenthal holds Norwich Public Utilities as a model for the rest of the municipalities in the state.

“Norwich Public Utilities restored power within a couple of days, with the same kind of damage to its lines, and their rates are 24% lower than Eversource,” Blumenthal told WSHU’s Capitol Avenue podcast. “That kind of performance could be replicated by a bigger company like Eversource, if it cared more about its customers than its shareholders.”

Alexis John, a lifelong resident of Norwich, had never experienced a power outage before Isaias. And that’s good for business, too. She owns a busy beauty salon in downtown Norwich.

“I don't have anything to compare it to,” she said. “I think that nobody should have to worry about not having power.”

“You can't cook. I mean, you could cook but you can't cook. You can eat a sandwich. You can't work. Can you shower? No, you can't shower. You need hot water; need hot water. Do you hate us?” John laughed.

Well, we don't hate you. We envy you, John.

Isaias shut off power for nearly one-third of Connecticut households. Norwich had some trouble, too. But residents had power back on in the matter of hours, rather than days.

Anne Marie Lafayette, another lifelong Norwich resident, remembers when the lights went out 35 years ago during Hurricane Gloria – which, at the time, caused record breaking power outages across the state.

“We were out for three days, other places were out for a lot longer,” Lafayette said.

But there were worse storms more recently, like Irene in 2010, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and Isaias this year.

“Many people described Norwich as an oasis,” she said. “People were coming to Norwich for gas and for commodities because we were up and running so quick.”

Norwich is among a handful of communities that made crucial power decisions a century ago. Chris LaRose, manager of Norwich Public Utilities, said the city got a charter from the state to run its own public utility company.

Norwich built a hydroelectric dam on the Shetucket River that flows through the center of town.

“There is machinery in here that go back to the early 1900s that have to be operated by hand.” said Chris Riley, an NPU spokesperson.

He said the equipment is so old, it’s tough work for NPU’s engineers.

“It’s not easy but they always say it’s some of the most challenging and rewarding work that they do during the course of the year because it’s such a beautiful place it’s like working in a museum,” Riley said.

This dam supplied power to Norwich – first for street lights then later for homes and businesses. It used to supply all of the city’s power. Today it’s only about 5%. Most of the power for NPU’s 40,000 customers now comes from commercial generators

“We buy our power through a cooperative with the other municipal entities, so we able to get it more cheaply,” he said. “Plus our costs are much lower. Because we have only 146 employees our rates are lower.”

And there are other advantages, besides fewer outages and lower utility rates. Riley said NPU returns 10% of its gross revenue to the city of Norwich. Over 10 years, that’s amounted to more than $80 million to the city of Norwich.

“There’s been, I believe in the '70s, one instance where it was discussed selling to Connecticut Light and Power way back then, but there just wasn’t the public outcry for it,” he said.

“I do feel fortunate that we have our own locally owned utility,” said NPU customer Ann Marie Lafayette. “I also own some property in Groton, and again it’s a locally owned utility there. And the same thing there, power doesn’t stay out that long.’

Unfortunately, that cannot be said for most of Connecticut.

Listen to the full episode of WSHU’s Capitol Avenue podcast to learn more about how Connecticut is re-evaluating its relationship with its power companies.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.