New CL&P study defends storm response as ‘reasonable’

Contradicting two earlier reports that concluded that Connecticut’s largest utility was unprepared for last year’s two major storms, Connecticut Light & Power Co. offered utility regulators a private report Thursday that found its power restoration efforts were “reasonable” compared with industry norms.

But the report submitted by Maryland-based Davies Consulting also recommended that CL&P take several steps to elevate its response effort to that of an industry leader, including seeking additional revenues to pay for expanded tree-trimming.

And CL&P’s top emergency response executive said this week that the company already has more than doubled its tree-trimming budget this year, although he wouldn’t comment on whether it would seek a rate hike to recoup some of that cost.

William J. Quinlan, the company’s senior vice president for emergency preparedness, also pledged that the utility would use the report “as a blueprint for achieving industry best practices. Connecticut has high standards and high customer expectations. That, frankly, is what we’re aspiring toward as a company.”

“In both restorations, CL&P restored all of its customers within a reasonable timeframe in comparison to similar events — number of outages, amount of damage, etc. — without any serious injuries to the public or company workers,” Davies Consulting wrote in the report filed Thursday with the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

CL&P hired the Maryland firm last fall to prepare an assessment of the utility’s responses to Tropical Storm Irene, which hit Connecticut Aug. 27-28, and an Oct. 29 nor’easter.

Outages peaked at 671,789 after Irene, and the utility’s restoration effort lasted nine days. It was the most significant outage in company history until just over two months later, when a storm dropped between 1 and 2 feet of snow on much of central and northern Connecticut. Outages after that storm peaked at 807,228, and full restoration took 11 days.

CL&P, which serves more than 1.2 million residential and business customers, absorbed a hail of criticism from public officials at the state and municipal levels.

Two studies commissioned by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, including one prepared by a Washington, D.C., crisis management firm led by former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Witt, concluded that CL&P wasn’t sufficiently prepared, noting that the utility’s “worst-case scenario” plan offered little guidance for outages beyond 100,000 customers.

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect, called four days after the Oct. 29 storm for new utility performance standards, including millions of dollars in potential penalties.

But Davies Consulting wrote that after examining comparable past weather events, utilities of similar customer bases and vegetation-dense regions similar to tree-heavy Connecticut, CL&P’s restoration timetable fell within “industry norms.”

Davies Consulting reviewed a database of more than 70 tropical storms, hurricanes, snow and ice storms and other major weather events that have struck the U.S. and Canada over the past decade, Miki Deric, a partner with the firm and manager of the five-member team that prepared the report, said.

“Every storm is different, but there is a completely different expectation for (CL&P) customers now” after being hit with two major storms in just over two months’ time, Deric said. “If you face one major storm, customers tend to say, ‘this was once in a lifetime’ and then they move on.”

But while consumers’ tolerance levels may have been skewed by the rare one-two weather punch, the study did find that CL&P had “slightly less” than the median number of resources devoted to its response effort at the peak of the October storm outages compared with other utility response efforts in the Davies Consulting database.

CL&P President Jeffrey Butler, who conceded during the October storm restoration effort that CL&P had struggled to secure the private contractors it needed in a timely fashion, resigned shortly thereafter.

While CL&P is spending more per customer on its distribution system than other companies in the region, and meets normal industry standards, “the current, state-authorized funding for vegetation management … does not adequately address vegetation density, vegetation growth cycles in the region, and customer expectations for service levels.”

Deric said the company had been funding tree-trimming that allowed it to clear all vegetation within power line buffer zones once every five-and-a-half years, while the top pace in the industry is about once every four years.

CL&P more than doubled its tree-trimming budget this calendar year, rising from $25 million in 2011 to $53.5 million in 2012, Quinlan said.

The Davies Consulting report recommends that CL&P seek more revenue to cover this cost. Quinlan confirmed that any effort to recoup some or all of this added cost from customers would be resolved through PURA’s rate-setting function, but he declined this week to discuss any specific strategy CL&P would pursue.

CL&P 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.

It offered a plan to invest an extra $2.2 billion in tree-trimming, line and pole replacement and other improvements designed to “harden” its grid against the elements.

The new report also calls for the utility and state government to cooperate to revise regulations to allow CL&P to target and remove more “danger” trees. These generally involve older trees that technically lie outside of power line buffer zones but are deemed at risk of falling into lines or utility poles.

Davies Consulting also recommended several other enhancements that it said would elevate CL&P’s response capacity beyond “reasonable” to a level that leads the industry.

These include:

  • Conducting a systemwide training exercise. Though CL&P conducted drills at regional and command levels in 2010 and 2011, it hasn’t performed a systemwide exercise since 2007.
  • Fully integrating computer databases. Better coordination between systems that track outages and those that control power flow through the electric grid could enable the company to more quickly stop or re-route transmissions, and thereby accelerate certain restoration efforts.
  • Revamping the Town Liaison program to improve communications and serve a broader geographic area.
  • Exploring opportunities to join new mutual aid societies, increasing the likelihood that repair crews primarily dedicated to utilities in other states could be mobilized more quickly and sent here after a major storm. Private contractors, particularly from other states, provide the overwhelming bulk of the response effort following a major outage event. CL&P has about 200 line crews regularly on assignment throughout the year in Connecticut, but more than 2,000 crews were working here during the peak of the restoration effort after the October storm.