Malloy backs performance standards, and penalties, for utilities

Simsbury — Writing new utility standards into law, complete with penalties for poor performance, topped a list of initiatives Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled Wednesday to enhance Connecticut’s readiness for future weather-related crises.

The governor, whose Two Storm Panel outlined its own proposals earlier this week, also endorsed enhanced tree-trimming and related measures to better safeguard power lines, a pilot program to bury lines serving critical services in community centers, and a statewide emergency drill to be held no later than Sept. 1.

“We can’t know exactly what emergency is coming next, but we can learn from past experience and improve,” Malloy said. “The initiatives we’re announcing today are the first step toward that goal.”

The governor made his announcement at town hall in Simsbury, one of the communities hardest hit by the Oct. 29 nor’easter that left more than 800,000 residences and businesses statewide without power for up to 13 days afterward.

Near the top of Malloy’s 19-point agenda was an idea offered this week by his study panel, but initially by Rep. Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect, and by House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, in November.

Setting various performance standards, including time limits for utilities to restore power after crises, is not a new idea among states, said Nardello, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee, who reviewed Massachusetts’ regulatory benchmarks before first proposing standards in early November.

With Malloy’s cooperation, legislators should be able to enact a new system during the regular 2012 legislative session, even though it is limited to a relatively short 13 weeks between early February and early May.

While other states’ benchmarks are available to model, “It is going to take some detailed analysis” to ensure Connecticut’s standards reflect its landscape, population and other unique qualities, she said. But the Prospect lawmaker also noted that state utility regulators already have commissioned two related assessments of electric utilities’ responses to the Oct. 29 storm and late August’s Tropical Storm Irene, which should provide the governor and legislature with the research they need.

Malloy also said he would ask the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority to formally reopen the electric utilities’ current rate dockets to require additional spending on tree-trimming and related measures to protect power lines and poles from overhanging trees and branches.

To complement this effort, $1 million would be added next fiscal year to the state Department of Transportation’s $550,000 tree-maintenance budget, he said.

Connecticut Light & Power Co., the state’s largest electric utility serving about 1.2 million customers in 149 cities and towns, estimated in mid-December it could reduce outages by up to 40 percent a decade from now with a 10-year improvement plan that would gradually add more than $13 to the average residential monthly bill.

But it stopped short of recommending extensive burying of existing overhead lines, warning that could increase costs significantly.

Malloy said he supports a pilot program looking at selective burying of lines, an idea also recommended by his Two Storm Panel earlier this week. The goal is to ensure that electrical power for critical services — police and fire protection, shelters, grocery stores and gasoline stations — is protected in each community even during major storms.

The governor also wants a statewide emergency exercise, incorporating state and municipal agencies, utilities, and private social service providers to be held before Sept. 1.

Malloy said this could cost as much as $650,000, adding that he would include a plan to fund the exercise in his proposed revisions to the 2012-13 state budget, which is due to legislators in early February.