The Lights Are On In Jewett City

Aug 30, 2011

The lights are on in the borough of Jewett City, which is saying something.  For much of the past two days, residents in the eastern part of the state have been without power after Tropical Storm Irene came through.  But since 9:30 Monday night, Jewett City has been an oasis of electricity. COHEN: Driving here, the stoplights are out.   There's gas stations that aren't open.  You come into Jewett City... SULLIVAN:  We're hot.  We're energized.  We love it. That's Ken Sullivan.  He's the director of the Jewett City Department of Public Utilities.  He lives one town over.  His home doesn't have power.  But his office does. COHEN: That's got to feel pretty good, no? SULLIVAN:  It feels good.  I'll be blunt.  We busted our tails.  And it was a lot of hard work, a lot of hours, and it makes you feel good when you look outside last night at 9:30 and I look outside and I see lights glowing and I drive a mile down the road into Lisbon and they're in the darkness.  It was nice to turn around to come back.  So it makes you feel good, yeah. That the lights are on may have something to do with the fact that Jewett City has it's own public utility. So while most of the state's residents pay Connecticut Light and Power for their electricity, residents in Jewett City pay the Jewett City Department of Public Utilities. It's one of several small public utilities in the state, including others in Wallingford, Groton, Norwich, Norwalk, and Bozrah.  There is also a Mohegan Tribal Utility Authority. Sullivan says Jewett City may well be the smallest.  CL&P has 1.2 million customers.  He's got just 2,300.  That said, Jewett City's electrons get to town over CL&P lines.  So when those lines failed Sunday, the whole town was without power. "We are fed in two directions through wires owned by Connecticut Light and Power.  Both feeders subsequently went down, which put all of our service sector in the dark." By that time, Sullivan and Gretchen, his German shepherd, had already moved into the office -- he sleeping on his blow up mattress, she in her crate.   Sullivan and his linesmen then started working to repair their own issues while CL&P fixed its. Speaking of manpower, while the rest of the state seems to be understaffed for the emergency -- bringing in crews from out of state to help fix the power lines in Connecticut -- Sullivan says he didn't have a manpower issue.  He just called one of his linesman in off vacation.  And with that, he was fully staffed.  With two linesman. And him. Having a small utility means multi-tasking.  If he's not in the office, Sullivan often helps his linesman from the ground. It also means people get direct access to him. That can cause some tension. SULLIVAN: One of the things that comes up locally was, we have a generator.  And some of the citizens were asking me, you know, Ken, turn the generator on, and I said, no, we're not going to turn the generator on, it's unsafe to do so.  That didn't go over very well.  COHEN: Why was it unsafe? SULLIVAN: It was unsafe because we still had downed wires.  Now, being small has its advantages.  His staff does its own tree trimming. The linesman are 25-year guys who know the system instinctively. And, sure, being big probably has its advantages, too.   The bigger companies often have computerized management systems with GPS that identify outages and issues.  Sullivan doesn't have that.  To find out what's out, he drives around and takes a look.  And gets calls from his customers. So, yeah, he's the small public utility company.  And this past weekend, being small may have helped. "You certainly can't try to compare the two or contrast the two in any way shape or form.  We have what we have, we have the staff that we have, we were able to hit it very hard, and you know, we came out on the winning end.  This time." And this time, in Jewett City, winning means the lights turn on.