Seizing opportunity in a crisis

Here in the shadow of Rattlesnake Ridge, winter is slowly evolving into spring. Today I listened to the winter remembrances of one woman who was stunned when she was able to walk right up to a group of ducks on a frozen lake this winter, only to discover that their feet were frozen in the ice.

Eversource, New Hampshire’s largest utility, has a problem. They are stuck in the 1980s. The world has changed around them and they have remained firmly implanted. Like ducks with their feet frozen in the ice. 

They have hunkered down in the face of a wintry storm of deregulation and relied on the old standbys: elect a governor who will be “your guy” — spread some cash around and you’ll get whatever you want. That’s how we got the highest electricity rates in the country, some will recall.

To summarize just how we arrived at the place we are today, I’ll make the blatantly self-interested, but nevertheless appropriate, reference to my new novel, “Sacred Trust.”

In this fictional account, a group of citizens have banded together to stop “Granite Skyway,” a powerline proposed by a consortium of investors, including the state’s principle utility company. James Kitchen, a journalist covering the fight cites the process that brought us to this point by telling the story of how Sen. John Durkin put an eight-word amendment into the National Energy Policy Act as it wound its way through Congress: “The amendment required utility companies to purchase power — at market rates — from any producer of electricity generating fewer than 80 megawatts.”

“Durkin originally believed he was helping establish a foothold (for New Hampshire-based) wood to energy biomass and trash to energy cogeneration. He was. But the door he opened with his amendment turned out to be big enough for every dreamer and entrepreneur, with a viable idea for generating electricity renewably, to walk through. Soon proposals for small hydro, solar power, wind power and other renewable resources were on the drawing board or underway.”

“The changes of the 1970s represented the first steps in a changing relationship between America’s public utilities and the people and businesses that consumed the energy. Utilities no longer held complete monopoly power over both the sale and the purchase of electricity as well as its transmission.”

Northern Pass represents a well-planned effort to reverse the evolutionary chain of events leading us to this place. To Eversource, the changes taking place in an era of deregulation represent an existential threat to utility companies nationwide. 

Most utility companies, including Eversource, are seeking to maintain control of the revenues generated by the flow of electricity. With a few rare exceptions, they are pitted against those advocates of a new distributed energy paradigm where small, renewable power production replaces the large electricity generators of today. 

Eversource’s Northern Pass proposal represents the tragic and classic example of a company that has lost touch with its main mission — to serve its customers. Despite the outrage of the governor over the decision of the Site Evaluation Committee, that unanimous decision should have been the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes of the jackass, but Eversource and Governor Sununu persist. 

It’s time for Eversource to drop Northern Pass like week-old road kill and begin the process of reinventing the company. It doesn’t need to be painful. Eversource, and the state, can start by taking a page from Vermont’s playbook. 

Mary Powell, CEO of Vermont’s largest Utility, Green Mountain Power, has transformed GMP into a powerhouse among utility companies (she calls GMP an energy transformation company): Delivering clean, cost-effective and highly reliable power to customers all across Vermont, with the highest customer approval ratings in the U.S. 

Here’s how she explains her company’s success:

“The first thing I got to do, which was really an amazing opportunity, was to radically transform the culture of our company, from a very traditional, bureaucratic, slower-moving organization to one with the credo “fast, fun, effective and customer-obsessed.” To make sure we were talking about customers, not meters, leaning in the direction customers wanted us to go.”

“Fast, fun, effective and customer-obsessed.” You don’t see the word shareholder anywhere in this. It’s not because no one cares about shareholders, it’s simply because if you do the job right, the customers will benefit first and the shareholders will follow. 

Wayne King of Rumney, is an author, artist, activist and recovering politician who served three terms in the NH Senate and was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994. 

Categories: Opinion