CL&P ready to defend its response to Tropical Storm Irene

Facing a legislative inquiry after the state’s worst power outage, Connecticut’s largest electric utility intends to defend its performance today by telling legislators that it restored power to more customers and in less time after Tropical Storm Irene than in any previous blackout.

Jeffrey D. Butler, the president and chief operating officer of Connecticut Light & Power Co., acknowledged an “opportunity” for the company to improve communications with the public and towns after blackouts. But in an interview with The Mirror, he said CL&P deserves good marks overall for its response before and after Irene.

The nine days to restore power after Irene was one fewer than it took to make repairs after Hurricane Gloria in 1985. At its peak, 671,000 CL&P customers were out from Irene, compared to the previous record of 477,428 from Gloria.

United Illuminating, the state’s second-larges utility, reported 158,000 outages. It serves 324,000 customers, mostly along the shoreline from the New Haven to Bridgeport areas.

Nearly all the damage from Irene in CL&P’s territory was caused by trees and branches falling on 17,000 miles of electric lines, which snake through one of the nation’s densest canopy of trees, Butler said.

CL&P says it had to replace 1,200 poles, hang 108 miles of wire, repair 1,700 transformers and help clear more than 1,500 roads across the state.

For every mile of electric line in Connecticut there are, on average, 184 trees close enough to require regular trimming, Butler said. With 17,000 miles of wires, that means more than 3 million trees for CL&P to monitor and trim.

Both Butler and UI spokesman Michael West said their utilities will ask lawmakers to reassess state regulations governing tree-trimming, noting that Connecticut is one of the two most vegetation-dense states in the nation when it comes to foliage close to power lines.

“We need to take a look at the process through which trees are pruned,” West said.

Legislators intend to press utilities to disclose not only the problems they face in arranging for tree trimming, but also how much of their budgets they allocate toward this task, said Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee.

“I think we need to know how they spent the money from the last rate increase, and how well they used it to prepare for this storm,” Nardello said.

The energy committee is one of several participating in the legislative inquiry. The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy also has convened a separate independent inquiry to examine the overall response to the storm by the state, towns, utilities and others.

CL&P and UI will send representatives to the legislative inquiry at 9:30 a.m. in the Legislative Office Building. Cable and telephone industry representatives and municipal leaders also have been asked to testify.

The hearing continues on Monday, Sept. 26, with testimony from the general public and from unions representing utility crews, who complained about staffing levels and overtime policies that allowed no employee line or tree crews to work more than 16 hours in a 24-hour period.

Butler said NU has no doubts that requiring eight hours off after a 16-hour shift was a sound safety policy, given that crews would be working for more than a week to repair the extensive damage, nearly all of which was attributed to falling trees and branches.

One lineman was electrocuted making repairs after Gloria, and an investigation found fatigue was a factor.

“We recognized early on that this was going to be a multi-day event,” Butler said of Irene, a hurricane that ravaged 15 states and cut power to 7 million homes and businesses between Aug. 20 and 29. It was downgraded to a strong tropical storm before its winds and rains reached Connecticut on Aug. 27.

Since power to the last customer was restored Sept. 6, CL&P has been preparing to defend its response, gathering data showing that eight or nine days was the norm for repairs in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York.

“I still think we were looking at an eight- or nine-day restoration period” regardless of the size of the company’s staff, Butler said. “That was just the amount of damage we were looking at.”

Butler, who absorbed a hail of media questions about declining repair crew manpower, said during the interview in the company’s Hartford offices that many don’t realize company employees always have comprised a small fraction of the response effort during huge events like Irene.

CL&P directly employs 204 crews–most of which are two-member teams–for line repair, but put 1,889 crews in the field for line work or tree trimming and clean up after Irene, augmenting its numbers primarily through private contractors.

By comparison, the company had 268 crews on the company payroll during Hurricane Gloria in 1985. But it put 1,032 crews into the response effort and needed 10 days to restore power to 477,428 customers.

CL&P belongs to two regional mutual aid groups composed of electric utilities, but since they all were struck hard by Irene, little help came from that source. “Quite honestly the resources weren’t available,” Butler said.

The company has strong ties with several private repair contractors, Butler said, including two national giants, Asplundh and Quanta Services. “We do a lot of work with these companies,” he said. “Having strong relationships with these contractors gave us an advantage” in securing help at a time of fierce competition.

Butler was less confident about CL&P’s relationships with leaders of Connecticut’s cities and towns, or with its 1.2 million residential and business customers, but added the company is focused on improving communications.

“Giving our customers the information they are looking for–I think that’s our biggest opportunity,” said Butler, who declined to use the word “failing.”

CL&P began reaching out to customers two days before Irene with media releases, public service announcements, and through online social media such as Facebook and Twitter. “We wanted people to understand this was going to be multiple days to get power restored,” he said.

But one of the problems with telling customers that it could take anywhere from a couple days to a week or more to restore power is that many may hopefully count on the former, not the latter. “I think a lot of people took it that way,” Butler said.

And as people pressed for more specifics about their respective situations after the storm, it was largely too late to refine the message. “We live on the Internet,” he said. “Without power you don’t have the Internet.”

A round of automated calls made about one week after the storm helped the company reach about 190 customers suspected of still lacking power though no outages had been reported.

The company also experienced problems working with local officials, whom Butler said “want to know the trouble by streets, not by circuits.  … Certainly our communications with the towns we can improve.”

Irene damaged 21 major transmission lines that link generation sites with substations.

These lines have to be repaired before lower-voltage distribution line problems can be addressed. But because these transmission lines are located away from neighborhoods, local officials and residents often don’t notice, and mistakenly assume no repair work has begun in their community

Northeast Utilities, the owner of CL&P and smaller utilities in western Massachusetts and New Hampshire, estimates the storm cost it $100 million, with about three quarters of the damage coming in Connecticut.

West put the price tag for UI’s damages at between $20 million and $25 million.

Neither said Friday what portion they would seek to pass on to customers through future rate hike requests, with Butler saying that each state has a regulatory process to make that assessment.

But Nardello said lawmakers will want some indication today about their fiscal plans. “I believe there will be questions about their costs and their intentions,” she said. “I think the public deserves to know.”