Is it time to divorce Eversource?

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To the Editor:

The past few weeks have made it abundantly clear how much of an essential service the Island’s only electric utility provider, Eversource, is. And, with more climate-induced and stronger storms in our Island’s future, it may be time to ask if they are up to the challenge. Certainly, no one can dispute the fact that the nor’easter that struck the Island in October was a wake-up call. Thousands of Islanders were without power for days, many without backup generators or a warm place to stay. So, like the hearty New Englanders that we are, we hunkered down with batteries, candles, and the grace of neighbors offering a warm shower and maybe a place to store our food to prevent spoilage. And we cannot forget the dozens of women and men from our Island’s electric utility supplier who worked tirelessly for days, often 12- to 16-hour days, to get all of us back up and running, some without power for a week. 

However, the questions we must confront are: What if this storm had happened in January or February, with temperatures in the teens; what if the storm had been an even stronger nor’easter, and what if the ferries had been out for more than a day, stranding most of our electric utility’s resources on the Cape instead of where we needed them, right here on Martha’s Vineyard? 

I recognize that some may feel that living on an Island makes the conditions we endure inevitable, and if that does not suit us, then maybe we should live elsewhere. That certainly may have been the case in 1921, when the majority of Islanders lived by candles and gas lanterns. But it is definitely not the case in 2021, when the majority of us pay hundreds a month to the sole electric utility on the Island. A scan of stories in The MV Times over the past year reports a litany of outages and other complaints against Eversource — from excessive billing charges which the state had to step in and legislate against to a lack of willingness to take over private utility lines, which cover about 60 percent of the island (Comcast and Verizon accepted this expense when they acquired their Island businesses from Bell Atlantic, but Eversource failed to do so when they acquired NSTAR). In fact, Eversource likes to remind us that we own the expense of their utility line once it reaches our property, and should we wish to bury the line, it will cost upwards of $100 a foot!

Since the nor’easter, we have had two more outages in our very accessible part of West Tisbury. Rather than issuing an unqualified apology expressing regret and resolve to fix the problem, Eversource resorted to the PR tactics of qualified apologies (“we are sorry … but if only residents would report and maintain trees”), and even worse, the sympathetic apology (“we are sorry that so many are without power … but these darn storms are getting worse and worse”). These responses from Eversource leadership are unacceptable. They show utter disrespect for their customers, for their employees who have worked without sleep to restore us, and for the essential service that we and the state of Massachusetts have entrusted them to provide. PR photo ops on Twitter by Eversource’s CEO from the Cape during the recent nor’easter, its failure to deploy sufficient resources during the well-forecast nor’easter in advance of the storm (most of the delay in the Island’s recovery was due to a lack of equipment and people on the Island), and its continued excuses that absolve them of responsibility tell us that Martha’s Vineyard is an expensive afterthought for them. and that we were better off when NSTAR was our electric utility provider. 

What then are we to do? Most here cannot afford the cost of a generator, nor the cost to do as my family is doing, installing one of the first Tesla solar roofs on the Island, to divorce our safety and well-being from Eversource. Maybe the six Island towns need to come together and consider divorcing Martha’s Vineyard from Eversource in favor of a utility provider that will commit to positioning enough resources right here on the island year-round, a utility provider that will maintain its lines with monthly inspections, a utility provider that will own the poles and the trees that encroach on them, and take care of cutting them back, a utility provider that will ‘own’ the problem, knowing full well that we cannot reverse the severity of the weather here, and a utility provider that recognizes that the average age of an Island resident is approaching 60, and that seniors without power are a recipe for disaster when a big winter storm hits. There is precedent for the island to petition the state and other electric utility providers to step in and own the business with the care that an essential service demands. Boulder, Colo., and Palo Alto, Calif., among other cities, went so far a decade ago to take over and privatize their electric service, recognizing the impact of climate on this essential service. Maybe it is time for Martha’s Vineyard to initiate divorce proceedings from Eversource, citing abandonment of responsibility and irreconcilable differences? Maybe it is time for the good people of Martha’s Vineyard to own their own safety and well-being, rather than sitting in the dark and the cold, waiting for Eversource to get around to restoring us?

Michael Bellissimo
West Tisbury