Who Has the Power?

GASDA exec gets to the root of frequent outages in Connecticut

Traci Carneal, Freelance writer

If you’ve been to Connecticut in the winter, you may have seen Mike Fox trekking down the streets with a camera. But rather than capturing the glow of freshly fallen snow on the treetops, he’s more interested in snow-laden branches that may be the cause of frequent power failures across the state.

As executive director of the Gasoline & Automotive Service Dealers of America (GASDA), Riverside, Conn., and a former station owner, Fox has been taking snapshots as part of his strategy to fight legislation introduced two years ago (before Hurricane Sandy) that would have mandated generators in all Connecticut service stations. The testimony he presented on behalf of GASDA, along with input from other groups opposed to the mandate, was effective in not only defeating the bill, but also at revealing the root of the power interruption problem in Connecticut: lack of tree maintenance by utility companies.

“While I understood that the issue being addressed was an important one, I also wanted to suggest that there are other options for solving the power outages,” Fox says. Through his research he learned that in some cases the same tree was identified as the source of a power outage several years in a row, yet it remained unrepaired. He strengthened his argument via photographs taken near legislators’ homes. He urged them to drive by the location and see for themselves the compromised power lines.

As Fox points out, a photo is worth a thousand words. So now, instead of generator mandates, there are stricter guidelines for utility companies on maintaining service and restoring service quicker, enforced by fines.

It’s too soon to say if this strategy will work, because this will be the first winter under the policy. However, it will be interesting to watch as other states continue to put the emphasis on generators: New York is requiring stations in certain critical locations to install generators, and New Jersey is offering grant money to certain stations for full generator installations.

When Things Worked
A station owner for 22 years, Fox understands the challenge of keeping fuel pumps flowing and staying profitable in the frigid winter months. He recalls a time when the power never went out, the tanks were full and the doors stayed open.

“When I first went into business, the state completely closed I-95 during a storm — no traffic whatsoever except for trucks delivering gasoline,” he says. “I never ran out of gasoline. I pumped more gas in a day than I would in my whole career. The snow was taller than the station’s front door, but a) we had power; b) the terminals had power; and c) the terminals had product.”

That memory of a better day has kept Fox motivated to help find solutions to the power outage epidemic in Connecticut. Simply put, the utility companies aren’t maintaining trees like they used to. As power companies have increased their customer base by 60%, they have reduced maintenance crews by 40%, according to Fox.

“The problem today is that we have so many downed power lines because utility companies have gotten rid of all of their tree-cutting maintenance services,” Fox says. “I actually went to a spot down the street from my gas station that had been experiencing power outages for two weeks. I took pictures, informed our utility company, and then a year later the lines were still literally running through the trees.”

Other states with even harsher winters don’t have the same power issues, he says. Michigan has a similar population density, but its power lines are underground. And why does northern Minnesota run like clockwork despite up to 70 inches of snow and temperatures as low as 60 below in the winter?

“They don’t have generators in every gas station, but they are doing fine,” Fox says.

Problem Solved?
Gas stations aren’t totally in the clear in terms of generator mandates. In February Connecticut converted all service stations along the I-95 corridor and Merritt Parkway, the two main roadways, from “independent dealer/distributor” to “company-operated station.” According to Fox, the government intends to mandate generators in those stations and make them priority delivery locations for fuel.

“When I heard about this, I said, ‘Whoa.’ Yes, these are generally larger facilities, but I don’t think all 23 stations need to have generators and priority status,” Fox says. He suggests spot locations such as one at the entry point and end point of I-95 and maybe one in between. Even better, allocate X amount of dollars to the program and make it so everyone can participate, he suggests.

“I actually think New York is taking the correct approach because the stations are targeted by location and size, and the generator lease pool is an option,” Fox says.

As for Connecticut’s utility-accountability strategy, only time will tell if fining companies for not restoring power quickly enough will flip the switch.

If a generator program were to be proposed, GASDA has suggested utility companies create a program because they know best what a gas station’s requirements would be. “We aren’t big corporations that make billions of dollars,” Fox says. “There are zoning issues, permits needed, etc. The utility companies should be able to help a great deal with the logistics.”

The jury is out as the only two utility companies in Connecticut prepare to merge. “We are looking for those synergies in cost savings they have been talking about,” says Fox.

Now who has the power?