Senate adopts penalties, standards for blackouts

The Senate voted unanimously Saturday to adopt and send to the House a bill imposing penalties on Connecticut’s utilities for poor performance, a reaction to extended blackouts after storms last August and October.

The bill backed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy also would toughen performance standards for electric, gas and telephone utilities, require them to report annually to the state on their emergency response plans and would launch a pilot “micro-grid” program to ensure vital commercial and public services in community centers remain active during wide-scale power outages.

Lawmakers did not mandate the most expensive solution to minimizing power outages: the burying of overhead utility lines. But they did order municipalities and the state Department of Transportation to notify utilities whenever public works projects could facilitate the burying of nearby power lines.

The legislation grew from studies of two storms that paralyzed much of Connecticut during the second half of 2011. Tropical Storm Irene, which hit most of the state Aug. 27-28, left more than 670,000 residences and businesses without power. And an Oct. 29 nor’easter caused more than 800,000 outages.

“The current system is intolerable. We must do better,” said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, who added that the utility response to last year’s storms had a harmful effect “not only on the quality of our lives, but on the economy of our state.”

“We were in a period of complacency. We assumed everything was fine” said Sen. Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester, co-chairman of the Planning and Development Committee. “We got whacked and we got whacked big time. … This bill can’t solve everything, but it is a great start.”

“Hopefully none of us have forgotten the fact that so many of our constituents sat for days” without electricity or heat, said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield.

One of the measure’s critical components, he added, was a mandate that state utility regulators develop standards for electric and gas providers.

State regulators can initiate a review of an electric or gas utility’s performance at any time, though it must do so whenever at least 10 percent of a company’s customer base has been without service for at least 48 hours.

The standards the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority will develop must address regular tree-trimming near power lines, minimum utility maintenance staffing levels and contingency agreements that enable companies to expand the repair workforce after major storms.

The legislation also empowers PURA to impose fines up to as much as 2.5 percent of the utility’s annual revenue from electricity or gas distribution.

The state’s largest electric utility, Connecticut Light & Power Co., absorbed a hail of criticism after last year’s storms and particularly following the October nor’easter, as state and municipal leaders, consumers, utility worker unions and others argued it moved far too slowly to restore power.

CL&P needed nine days to restore power to all customers after Irene, and more than 11 days after the October nor’easter. And given that the latter storm dumped between 1 and 2 feet of snow on much of northern and central Connecticut, thousands of households also were left without heat for several days as temperatures hovered close to freezing.

Two studies commissioned by 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.

“While I hope that the two major storms we endured last year in a little more than six weeks were an aberration, the reality is we need to take every possible precaution to make sure we learn from those two unprecedented events,” Malloy wrote in a statement Saturday. “While we can’t control what Mother Nature throws our way, enacting tougher standards for utility companies and improving communication and training for state and local officials are two actions that will make sure we’re in a better position to respond once a storm is over.”

CL&P commissioned its own study of the storm response, releasing a report in March from Maryland-based Davies Consulting that recommended that the utility expand tree-trimming near power lines and take other steps to elevate its response. But it also disputed Malloy administration reports that the company was unprepared for the storms, concluding that power restoration efforts were “reasonable” compared with industry norms.

A final mandate in the bill directs PURA to develop a pilot program to work with interest communities to develop “micro-grids” to safeguard power to vital public and commercial services.

The measure authorizes the authority to issue up to $5 million in grants and loans to develop fuel cells or other alternative clean energy generation sources. These would maintain electric service to hospitals, police and fire stations, sewage treatment plans and vital commercial services such as gasoline stations in community centers in the event standard electric service is interrupted on a wide scale.