Connecticut utilities’ response to Irene called ‘at par’ or better

A top federal energy official said Wednesday that Connecticut’s two major electric companies are on pace to restore power after Tropical Storm Irene more quickly than is typical after disasters of similar scope.

“It may not be any consolation to those currently without power,” said William Bryan, the official who oversees infrastructure security and energy restoration for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Based on the feedback Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and utility officials are getting, that undoubtedly is an understatement.

“Obviously the issue in Connecticut right now is power, power, power. It is on everybody’s mind who is without it, and everyone who has it is grateful to have it,” Malloy said.

For the second consecutive day, Malloy was joined at his afternoon briefing for the media by the top executives of the state’s two major electric companies, Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating.

With more crews still coming into the state, the last customers should see power restored next Wednesday. The extent of the power outages were double those caused by Hurricane Gloria in 1985, Malloy said.

As of 4 p.m., 48,000 UI customers still were out, down from a peak of 158,000. By the weekend, the number is expected to be fewer than 10,000, said James P. Torgerson, the president of UI.

The much larger CL&P had about 290,000 customers in the dark, with the total expected to be 200,000 by Thursday morning, said Jeffrey D. Butler, the president of CL&P. Peak outages at one time were nearly 700,000 for the utility, although more than 800,000 were out at various times.

“We continue to make steady progress,” Butler said.

The initial estimate of Irene’s cost to CL&P is $75 million, he said.

Both executives defended the pace of restoration, but they acknowledged a need to better inform the public about what to expect in the days ahead. Uncertainty, they said, adds to customer frustration.

Butler said restoration estimates now were online for 46 of the 149 communities served by CL&P.  The goal, he said, was to have a schedule available for every community some time Thursday. Under the current schedule, the Norwalk and Newtown areas will be last, regaining power on Sept. 6 and 7.

“Usually an outage, you have a storm, it is an inconvenience for customers,” Torgerson said. “This has gone to where it is a hardship for many customers. We understand loss of electricity is a big problem.”

Irene hit the eastern seaboard as every state is devising a federally funded energy assurance plan, an analysis of the risk to the power grid.  One result could be federal standards for things such as tree-trimming near power lines.

State agencies and the utilities also will complete an after-action report to study the response to Irene and recommend changes, but Malloy said the focus will remain on restoring power.

“I think there’s going to be plenty of time to look at response on a whole lot of different levels, and I think that needs to be done on a regional basis,” Malloy said. “There is plenty of time to do that.”

Malloy toured heavily forested eastern Connecticut on Wednesday, where the winds were strongest, the percentage of outages were the highest, and population densities are the lowest.

All three factors will contribute to the last of the restorations to occur there.

Malloy said state officials warned before the storm that many residents would be without power for a week or longer.

“That’s what we said from day one, from hour one,” Malloy said. “That’s what we said.”

Bryan, the federal energy official, said power usually is restored to 60 percent to 70 percent of customers in three to six days after a storm of this magnitude.

“That’s the national average,” Bryan said. “I would argue that you guys are actually at par or above par in that case right now, which speaks very well for your utility companies. The rest of the folks normally get restored within 10 days to two weeks.”

Bryan warned that one recommendation to make the state less vulnerable to such widespread outages could be aggressive tree-trimming, which can spark nearly as many complaints as blackouts.

“In some areas, that’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Bryan, who flew over Connecticut for the first time this week. “I was amazed at how much forestry you have here.”