Legislators: Fine utilities for slow power restoration

Dissatisfied with Connecticut Light & Power Co.’s response to last weekend’s snow storm, leading House Democrats said Wednesday it’s time for state government to set power outage restoration standards and issue millions of dollars in fines if utilities don’t get the job done well and on time.

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden and Rep. Vickie O. Nardello of Prospect — who began the 11:30 a.m. press conference by announcing their respective homes had been without power since Saturday — said a 2009 Massachusetts statute would be the model for legislation they will propose next year in Connecticut.

“There are a lack of crews available to do the work,” Donovan said, referring particularly to CL&P — the state’s largest electric utility — which serves about 80 percent of the state’s residences and businesses. “What we need are more crews here in Connecticut.”

Customers here pay some of the highest electric rates in the nation, added the speaker, who is running for Congress in the 5th District. “You’d think for the highest rates we would have better service, or the best service.”

More than 884,000 customers of either CL&P or United Illuminating, lost power from the storm that dumped more than one foot of snow on sections of Connecticut.

United Illuminating, which primarily serves the state’s southwestern shoreline, completed restoration Tuesday night to its nearly 52,000 customers who had lost power.

But CL&P reported nearly 545,000 customers still without power as of noon on Wednesday. More troubling to state officials: Company president Jeffrey Butler acknowledged Tuesday evening that the utility was struggling to bring in the crews it needs from outside of Connecticut to supplement its work force.

CL&P had 493 line crews working Tuesday to restore service. That was complemented by more than 900 other teams clearing trees, removing downed wires, repairing critical transmission lines that serve regional substations, and performing other functions.

Among those line crews, 172 are company employed, with the remainder hired by contract, primarily from out of state.

Butler said the company expects to have 627 line crews in the field by Wednesday, 727 by Thursday and 837 by Friday. All of those additional crews also are coming from out of state.

Earlier this week Butler said the company hoped to get more than 1,000 line crews in the field by the end of the week.

Butler, who absorbed a hail of media questions about declining repair crew manpower following Tropical Storm Irene in late August, said during a mid-September interview that many don’t realize that CL&P  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.

But Donovan said Wednesday “that’s a business decision that’s not working now in Connecticut.”

CL&P also irked lawmakers Wednesday when it released — as promised — a list projecting when power would be fully restored in all 149 towns it serves. Prior to Wednesday, a partial list with just over 50 communities had been posted, though Butler has said the goal was to finish all work by Sunday night.

And when the updated projection list was released, 94 communities were projected to be fully restored by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday.

Donovan added that as far as CL&P’s response has progressed to date, “it’s not reasonable.”

Donovan and Nardello said Massachusetts lawmakers unhappy with one utility’s response to a 2008 ice storm, enacted legislation that:

  • Sets state standards for utility readiness and response to major events.
  • Requires annual reporting from the utilities on their compliance with those standards.
  • Establishes a regular state review process to grade responses after major events.
  • And imposes fines up to 2.5 percent of annual transmission and distribution revenues.

Those fines are worth as much as $20 million per year in Massachusetts, Nardello said, adding that while a detailed fiscal analysis hadn’t been performed about the maximum potential penalty here, “I think it’s safe to say it’s in the millions of dollars.”

The state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority “has extensive standards and a thorough review process already in place,” CL&P responded in a company statement Wednesday afternoon. “We participate in this process after every storm. Once we complete restoration and all of our customers have power, we will be pleased to engage in a discussion of this issue.”

Malloy formed his own panel following Irene to assess the readiness and response of utilities, municipalities and state government.

Malloy’s senior policy advisor, Roy Occhiogrosso, said Wednesday that the governor has asked the panel to perform an analysis of the response to this snow storm as well.

“He thinks the panel members  should review this proposal (from House Democrats) and others that will likely be made,” Occhiogrosso added. “For now, the governor is squarely focused on doing everything he can to get everyone’s power back on as quickly as possible.”

Nardello, who co-chairs the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, raised questions following Irene about whether utilities’ were devoting sufficient resources to tree-trimming — one of the primary preventative measures used to mitigate potential damage to power lines.

Utility officials said that unlike Irene, this past weekend’s storm knocked down more larger trees and branches from outside of the trim zone because of the combination of both strong winds and wet, heavy snow.

Also unlike Tropical Storm Irene, which caused more than 765,000 outages statewide in that Aug. 27-28 tempest, this latest storm damaged 13 critical CL&P transmission lines that distribute power to substations — each of which in turn serves thousands of customers.

Nardello said state response standards also would enable lawmakers to determine if these transmission lines failed because of weather damage, or if maintenance or other preventable problems played a role.

“I’m asking why did all those transmission lines go down?” she said. “We need to know.”