DEEP Commissioner Esty wants outage-free safety zones in each community

Every community in Connecticut would have a select region safeguarded against power outages and containing shelters, public safety, groceries and other crucial services under a strategy outlined Wednesday by the state’s top environmental official.

In his first testimony on the recent storms that caused record-setting outages, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel C. Esty also said officials should explore tougher design and construction requirements, rules to keep more line repair crews in-state, and utility performance guidelines — with penalties linked to executive pay.


Commissioner Daniel Esty

Recalling the public scramble to secure basic services after both the Oct. 29 snowstorm and Tropical Storm Irene in late August, Esty asked Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storm Panel to envision “micro-grids” in each city and town where not only police stations and hospitals would have power, but sufficient shelters, grocery stores and gasoline stations to meet local needs.

More than 600,000 Connecticut businesses and residences lost power following Irene, which hit Aug. 27-28, and more than 800,000 lost service after the October storm. The latter storm in particular led to prolonged gasoline lines in the days immediately afterward as many motorists had to travel beyond their own communities to find a station with electrical service.

“We’re talking about a mission critical site … with a local source of power that would not go down” in the face of large-scale outages, Esty said.

These “mission critical” centers could be developed over time through several complementary policy changes.

The commissioner endorsed an expansion of tree-trimming efforts near power lines — an approach that has drawn near universal support.

Underground power lines

But Esty said that while this would protect Connecticut’s electric grid as a whole, the state also should investigate moving select sections of its 17,000 miles of power lines underground.

This often has been criticized as too expensive, Esty said, citing “ballpark cost (estimates) of $1 million per mile.” But select burying of overhead line sections, as they wear out, might be a cost Connecticut ratepayers could bear if spread out over 20 or 30 years. He added that these line improvements could be focused on strategic locations in each community’s “mission critical” neighborhood.

“Think of that addition as an insurance premium against storm damage” and loss of services, Esty said. “This would reduce that burden in a way that would be measurable.”

The state’s largest utility, Connecticut Light & Power Co., conceded in the days immediately after the Oct. 29 storm that it was struggling to mobilize the thousands of private-sector repair workers it needed to supplement in-house staff for power restoration work.

But Esty noted that while Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have statutes or rules restricting most licensed utility crews from working out of state during major outages, Connecticut does not. The common standard in neighboring states permits only about 30 percent of utility crews to leave, he said.

Utility performance standards

Esty also endorsed a concept that already has the backing of several key legislators — imposing tougher new performance standards on Connecticut’s utilities.

House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, and Rep. Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect, House chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, have pledged to introduce legislation in February that would include fines for utilities that fail to meet standards. Esty said Wednesday that those standards also should be linked to compensation for the top utility executives, though he didn’t suggest specific penalties.

Connecticut also needs to take preventative steps beyond its power grid, the commissioner said.

The state’s clean water system relies heavily on more than 100 sewage treatment plants, most overseen by municipalities. And the October storm showed that most of those sites have emergency power sources prepared to keep clean water services unaffected for no more than four or five days. “They clearly are not designed to cover more than short outages,” Esty said.

Flooding, particularly in connection with Tropical Storm Irene, threatened to breach “thousands of dams,” particularly those overseen by cities and towns and private interests, he said, calling for the state to revisit its design standards.

State highway repairs also are based on drainage and other environment-related design standards dating back to the 1960s, Transportation Commissioner James P. Redeker told the Two Storm Panel Wednesday, much to the dismay of Joseph McGee, panel chairman.

The chairman noted that the Transportation Department currently is repairing shoreline railroad bridges on the Metro-North commuter line between New Haven and the New York border. “These are supposed to last 75 years,” McGee said, questioning whether this is possible given the rise in sea levels and general intensity and frequency of storms over the past half-century.

For example, McGee said, what was characterized by the National Weather Service in the 1960s as a “100-year storm” — or a storm so intense it was likely to occur once every 100 years — now happens once every 33 years. And by the end of the day, the frequency will be once every 17 years. “There’s a sense of urgency to this conversation.”

But Redeker said neither state governments nationwide nor the construction industry itself has adopted a new standard yet. “If we had a standard, I’d be happy to adopt it,” he said.

Asking contractors to use upgraded designs and materials not commonly in use now could dramatically increase project costs.

Infrastructure repairs

Redeker also noted that Connecticut can’t afford to hold off on infrastructure repairs until design standards catch up with weather projections.

A 2010 report from the state’s Transportation Strategy Board found Connecticut’s bridge and highway systems to be nearing the end of their structural lives in badly in need of repair.

The board found about 6 percent of highway bridges and 27 percent of its railway bridges, nearly 300 structures in total, were rated structurally deficient, with at least one major structural component — such as its deck or substructure — not capable of carrying all legal loads. The number of structurally deficient bridges was at its highest level since 1993.

Much of the interstate highway system in this state was built in the 1950s and 1960s, and many of the bridges that serve it have a 40-60 year life span.

Nearly 60 percent of Connecticut’s highway pavement, about 2,200 miles, was found to be in less than good condition when inspected between 2006 and 2008, the report concluded.

The Two Storm Panel is scheduled to report in early January on the readiness of state and local governments and of Connecticut’s utilities, to respond to future major weather events, as well as on their response to the two earlier storms.