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May 17, 2021 On The Record

In first days as Eversource CEO, Joe Nolan lays out vision for utility giant’s future

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Eversource CEO Joe Nolan in his Prospect Street corner office in downtown Hartford.

“Where’s Jim Judge, the invisible Eversource boss?” one local columnist’s headline read.

That may have added to the public’s frustration with the company, which months later continues to take criticism for how it responded to the storm, though Eversource officials say some of the Monday-morning quarterbacking is unwarranted, especially since the major weather event was worse than initially forecast and took place amid a pandemic.

Regardless, don’t expect to see similar headlines with Joe Nolan now in charge. That’s because Nolan, who started as Eversource’s new CEO on May 5, said he will be a much more public figure, and one of his top priorities is to restore customers’ confidence in the company.

“In Connecticut I want to win over the hearts and minds of our customers,” he said. “Customers were upset, there is no question about it, after Isaias. It was a very tough storm.”

Nolan recently sat down with the Hartford Business Journal for a 50-minute, wide-ranging interview that touched on numerous topics ranging from last summer’s tropical storm to Eversource’s big bet on wind energy and its bullish outlook on the water industry.

White-haired and affable, the 58-year-old Nolan is a Massachusetts resident with a Boston accent. He’s got close ties to that city. Not only is Eversource dual headquartered in Boston, but he earned his undergraduate communications degree and MBA at Boston College. He also started his career in the Prudential Center, running a customer service center for the former Boston Edison Co., a small utility operator.

Eversource crews at work in the wake Tropical Storm Isaias, which knocked out power to over 1 million Connecticut residents in 2020.

He said his background in communications, customer service and government and regulatory affairs makes him well-suited to run a large regional and heavily-regulated utility company.

Outside of work Nolan is married with four daughters. He enjoys playing golf, has an 18 handicap and plans to play in this year’s Travelers Championship pro-am. Eversource is a sponsor of the PGA golf tournament and remains the title sponsor of the Eversource Hartford Marathon.

Nolan said his company is committed to maintaining a dual headquarters in Hartford. Overall, Eversource employs about 4,500 people in Connecticut and provides electric, natural gas and water service to 4.3 million customers in this state, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Here’s what else Nolan had to say during the HBJ interview, which took place in his Prospect Street corner office in downtown Hartford, just a few hours before the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) proposed a $30 million fine against Eversource for its handling of Tropical Storm Isaias.

Q: So, how do you plan to win over the hearts and minds of customers?

I think what you’ll see with me is I’ll be very hands on. For example, I was in Berlin on Christmas Day when we had customers who lost service. I certainly wasn’t going to enjoy my holiday when we had folks without power, so I spent the day there and was able to make sure customers were prioritized.

I was in Branford after Isaias and a reporter caught me talking to a woman with a chainsaw and we got a few laughs out of that.

But that’s what you’ll begin to see. That’s the way I operate. I get out there and see people and engage people. And I think that serves us well after the fact.

Q: What are the biggest changes you foresee for Eversource over the next five to 10 years?

I think there is a lot of technology that will become available that will give customers more line of sight in terms of what they are using for electricity and I think that will have a big impact.

I think you will see more smart meters deployed so customers can better understand how much energy they are using, and frankly help them use less energy.

Everyday we see new technology. We will not be on the bleeding edge of it. We want to see technology that has been deployed and successful because every dollar we spend we are spending on behalf of our customers and it needs to be prudently spent.

Q: Speaking of smart meters, Eversource unveiled a $500 million plan last year to install 1.2 million smart meters across Connecticut. What’s the status of that plan and what would be the benefits to ratepayers, particularly businesses?

Right now we are in discussions about it with PURA. I think you’ll begin to see some clarity around that over the next six to 12 months where we can begin to deploy these new technologies in greater numbers.

The smart meter technology uses a product called ‘Sense’ and the company that created it is based in Cambridge. It’s able to pick up the pulses of appliances that are in a home.

So if you get a big energy bill and you aren’t sure what caused it, we can identify you have a Frigidaire freezer in your basement that is using a lot of electricity.

Smart meters also help with reliability. They can help us isolate the smallest point of failure, which allows us to address power outages more quickly.

Q: What’s the biggest opportunity ahead for Eversource?

I think the most exciting thing for our business will be the wind opportunity. (Eversource has partnered with Ørsted on the development of Connecticut’s first offshore wind farm in New London, Revolution Wind, which has promised to deliver 304 megawatts of clean energy to Connecticut and 400 MW to Rhode Island — enough to power more than 350,000 homes across both states.)

Right now, with our project in New London, that is going to be the wind mecca of all New England. That port is the envy of all offshore wind developers. It’s a deepwater port with heavy-lift capabilities. We are investing close to $100 million in that port (including lease payments).

Those turbines will be the size of the Rockefeller Center, they are 770 feet, that’s huge, twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.

Q: What’s the latest on the Ørsted and Eversource State Pier Wind Energy project?

Right now we are in the permitting process and the Biden administration is actively engaged in it. They hosted a meeting [several] weeks ago with the wind developers and asked what they could do to speed things up. They have a commitment to wind energy.

There is no question in my mind the project is going to move forward.

Q: Eversource has traditionally been an easy target for criticism from lawmakers and regulators. How do you plan to get back in the good graces of those constituents?

I hit things head on. What you’ll see with me is that I want to engage and get to a mutually-beneficial outcome so we can get a win-win. It doesn’t always have to be a win-lose.

Q: What are your thoughts on the recent PURA report that was highly critical of Eversource’s response to Tropical Storm Isaias?

Believe me we feel terrible about what happened with Isaias and we are sorry about that and we always look at how we can improve things.

But the fact of the matter is you have a weather pattern in the South, which generally happens that time of year, hurricanes, they come up during August, September and October. We must have six to eight weather services that are telling us what is taking place.

That weather pattern was shifting and shifting so we began to line up mutual aid crews but no matter what you do, nobody to the south of you is going to commit crews until they see the type of damage you have.

The other thing is you really can’t do much until the storm passes.

There is a mandate that power must be restored within 96 hours of a storm hitting (or else utilities must compensate ratepayers). But when these big storms hit they are violent and create a lot of devastation. You really can’t put a stopwatch on and say you want power back in 96 hours.

When you have wires all over the ground, you don’t know if someone has a generator running that wasn’t properly set up and that’s going to back feed into one of our lines and kill one of our workers. It requires a lot of thoughtful and deliberate planning.

That storm did 30% more damage than Superstorm Sandy and Irene. We got people back online quicker than those storms. We had 2,550 crews we deployed.

We had to get 6,000 hotel rooms for crews when usually we have 3,000. It was a pandemic so we could only have one person in each hotel room and one person in each truck. People have to appreciate that.

Our employee morale was really hit hard by the criticism and that bothers me. They don’t deserve that kind of criticism.

Q: Is there anything Eversource is doing to improve its future storm response?

I was on the phone recently with utility CEOs from around the region and what we were talking about is how do we expand the mutual aid footprint. We are thinking differently. Do we go to the Midwest for help? Maybe we get some of the Michigan crews. Maybe crews from Ohio.

We are also meeting with communities to determine what their priorities are when these big storms hit.

Q: Connecticut has among the highest electricity prices in the country. Why?

The reality is Connecticut and Massachusetts value a clean kilowatt hour, energy efficiency, and green energy and with that comes a price. If you want to go to Texas, you can probably get yourself half the price, but you aren’t going to get the reliability and you are going to get a dirty kilowatt hour.

I think the folks in Connecticut can go to bed at night feeling like they are doing all they can to help the environment and lower their carbon footprint. And with that comes cost and that is the decision policymakers have made.

Q: Eversource became a big player in the water industry when it acquired Bridgeport-based Aquarion Water Co. in 2017 for $1.7 billion. Aquarion recently announced it was buying a Plainville water company. Why did Eversource want to be in the water business?

The water business is basically an infrastructure business. We love it. If we can find more deals we will pursue them.

There are 50,000 water companies across the country so when you pick one up, you get 1,000 customers here and 5,000 customers there. What happens with a lot of water companies is they come to a point when they have to make an investment, whether it’s in treatment or something else, and they say the burden is too much for them.

And that’s where we come in and we have the management team and expertise and we roll these companies up.

Q: In 2019 Eversource made a declaration that it would be carbon neutral by 2030. Is that goal still realistic?

We feel good about meeting that goal. The big steps we are taking to reduce our carbon footprint are related to our fleet and facilities.

Q: How much do you worry about cybersecurity?

It’s a very big threat.

We have our IT area in Berlin where we can see the number of people trying to penetrate our system. I’ll go into this room and see the map and all the sudden there will be this country that begins to pound us, trying to get into our system.

Attacks could come from anywhere from Russia or Ukraine. The number of attempts is in the millions on a weekly basis.

We have a cyber team and outside folks who are guarding the system.

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