No blackout of suggestions after storms

The one-two weather punch that produced more than 1.5 million power outages across Connecticut in just over two months also has generated a bumper crop of ideas.

Legislators, private interest groups and even Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have unveiled proposals in recent days and weeks about how the state can better avoid or at least mitigate the problems caused by last weekend’s winter storm,Tropical Storm Irene from late August, or both.

Some of these deal with basic day-to-day needs, such as ensuring at least one gasoline station remains open in every community, or requiring every cellular tower to have its own backup generator.

Others go a little deeper.

Two House Democratic leaders, Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden and Energy and Technology Committee Co-chairwoman Vickie O. Nardello of Prospect called Wednesday for state government to set new, more detailed standards for mass outage response, regular reviews, and fines for noncompliance.

And a new study panel is questioning whether the projected $200 million to $400 million damage bill for these two storms combined might be better spent to strengthen Connecticut’s infrastructure against further tempests.

“We need to be prepared to look at some important questions,” Joseph McGee, chairman of Malloy’s study panel reviewing storm-related issues, said Thursday. “It’s becoming clear that certain issues are going to have to be addressed.”

Irene, which hit Connecticut on Aug. 27-28, was only a few days old–with hundreds of thousands of power outages still to be resolved–legislators and utility officials already were talking about the need to revisit state laws regarding utility line buffer zones and the tree-trimming policies needed to preserve them.

But while tree-trimming grabbed plenty of headlines, McGee said several groups have come forward to his panel arguing this is only one of several preventative steps Connecticut needs to get better at.

Though state and local governments, utilities and even the nonprofit social services community generally have strong training programs, there appears to be insufficient coordination between these parties, McGee said.

The panel is currently studying a model used in Florida, but many states run a full-scale weather event simulation, with all key parties in the public and private sectors participating, McGee said. “When they get a chance to meet face-to-face, the response is better,” he said. “It’s clearly emerging as a best practice.”

The Connecticut Academy of Sciences elevated the issue of preparedness to a whole new level, McGee said, when it questioned not only the state’s utility network’s ability to withstand severe storms, but also the safety of its transportation infrastructure and shorelines. Rising sea levels not only increase the risk of flooding, but also tend to intensify storms traveling near the shoreline, elevating damage potential from winds, rain and snowfall.

And while damage estimates from Irene and last weekend’s snow storm are very preliminary, McGee added that his panel is just beginning to assess whether costly repairs could be mitigated in the future by spending more on protection now.

“Hardening and strengthening the utility structure makes a lot of sense” rather than just paying $400 million or more to return Connecticut to the same network that was badly battered by two storms in two months, he said.

Other proposals circulating at the Capitol on Thursday were based less on scientific research and more on practicality–or politics–depending on who was describing them.

Sen. Andrew W. Roraback, R-Goshen, said he would introduce legislation requiring all cellular towers to be equipped with backup generators. Utility officials testified after Irene that this would be cost prohibitive.

Rep. Bruce “Zeke” Zalaski, D-Southington, issued a statement pledging to introduce legislation during the regular 2012 legislative session, which begins in February, requiring that all gasoline stations and housing complexes for the elderly have generators.

“In Southington … many gas stations were closed as hundreds of customers were in need of gasoline, and could not get it while causing traffic jams and creating problems for local police,” Zalaski said. “Generators would have enabled the gas stations to remain open and serve the public. This is a serious public safety issue in all our communities.”

But Michael J. Fox, executive director of the Stamford-based Gasoline and Automotive Service Dealers of America, said that Zalaski is “a good friend, but this is the dumbest idea I’ve ever seen a politician come up with,” calling it “political pandering” in response to a storm that produced over 880,000 power outages.

Fox, whose association represents about 450 gas stations across Connecticut, said a generator large enough to serve such a facility costs $20,000 to $25,000 “and is almost the size of a car.” The purchase price, coupled with year-round maintenance expenses, would make a generator cost-prohibitive for many businesses–unless they could build the full cost into the price of gasoline.

“Has Michael talked to people in his own town?” Zalaski said, adding he believes the cost of a generator is less than Fox estimates. “People are irate.”

Rep. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, tried to solve the problem with a carrot instead of a stick.

Lesser’s proposal calls for the state to auction off one generator in each community, with stations bidding against each other in hopes of securing the machine at a bargain price.

“If you lose the bid and your competitor gas station gets the generator, you’ll go buy one yourself-or else you’ll lose a lot of business the next time there’s a power failure,” said Lesser.

But Fox said Lesser’s argument is founded on the misconception that everyone could earn big profits with a generator in a crisis–even if most competing stations have one.

“If having a generator provided an economic advantage to any business, they would have them,” he said.

The Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association, which represents about 1,000 Connecticut gasoline stations, was not as quick to dismiss Zalaski and Lesser’s ideas.

“We spoke with both today and are going to work with both and see what we can come up with that makes both economic and public safety sense,” ICPA President Eugene A. Guilford Jr. said. “Twice in ten weeks our state has been hit hard by loss of utility power and there are certain critical facilities that we need for basic and emergency needs while what we rely upon every day gets restored. Fuel is among those critical needs, so thoughtful people need to find a thoughtful solution.”

Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, suggested Thursday that Malloy issue an executive order suspending a regulation governing propane fuel. Witkos specifically wants to allow residents leasing propane tanks to purchase fuel refills from parties other than the tank’s owner.

“In the aftermath of this weekend’s devastating snowstorm and subsequent power outages, I have heard from constituents who cannot find companies to fill their propane tanks,” Witkos said. “Since most propane tanks are leased from the distributor, my constituents’ access to the fuel necessary to heat their homes is severely limited.”

Many of the ideas may have to wait for next year’s legislative session, but Witkos got a quick response: Malloy issued the order Thursday evening.

Malloy also called Thursday for state utility regulators to revisit a 2008 ruling that set regular maintenance staffing requirements for Connecticut Light & Power Co., the state’s largest electric utility.

“Obviously I think the (Public Utility Regulatory Authority) is going to have to take a look at that issue,” the governor said.