Congress looks into New England power outages

Washington -- Although lawmakers wanted information on what is wrong with New England's aging electric power grid, they heard from a Connecticut utility Thursday about what that utility is doing right.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he called for the hearing because of the electricity outages in New England last year caused by bad weather and an emerging pattern in the United States of more frequent and stronger storms.

"We know that there will be another storm that will knock down our power lines," Bingaman said.

Introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to the panel, John Bilda, general manager of Norwich Public Utilities, said that while the rest of New England was in the dark in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and after last fall's surprise snowstorm, his customers had electricity.

Bilda said planning, pruning of trees that could take down power lines and a nimble response to outages were the reasons for his utility's success.

About 800,000 Connecticut residents were out of power after Irene swept through the state last year, but Norwich Public Utilities was able to restore electricity to all of its customers within 48 hours.

Yet, Bilda said, ISO-New England, which has more than 6 million customers in the Northeast, is impeding the expansion of Norwich Public Utilities.

"We are facing regulatory hurdles at ISO-New England that are impacting our ability to bring new assets online and to preserve existing ones," Bilda said.

The problem, Bilda said, is that ISO-New England is unclear about whether existing tariffs allow the development of micro grids, which are systems where power is produced, transmitted and managed on a local scale. A micro grid can avoid the need for expensive transmission lines that carry power for long distances and can fail during a severe storm.

In a reaction to testimony, ISO-New England spokeswoman Lacey Ryan said in an email that the giant utility was willing to work with Norwich Public Utilities on the tariff issue.

"If the micro grid proposal falls under the provisions of the ISO-New England tariff, we will work with the stakeholder on their interconnection needs, just as we would with any other project that wants to interconnect with the high voltage transmission system," Ryan said.

But Blumenthal, who was called as a special witness to the panel, asked fellow lawmakers to require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to "clarify and affirm" the tariff structure for micro grids.

The energy regulatory commission expects to release a study in about a month on what happened to the New England transmission lines that failed after last year's storms.

Norman Bay, director of the commission's enforcement office, told lawmakers that agency officials have made site visits to affected transmission lines in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire and have met with key executives of Northeast Utilities.

But, he said, most outages were not caused by faulty transmission lines or substations, but by damage to distribution lines, which are regulated by the states and not by the federal energy commission.

Nevertheless, the commission's report will include recommendations on how New England's utilities can avoid massive blackouts after another bad storm, Bay said.

 

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