Storm panel report renews debate on higher costs for electric service
Selective burying of electric wires to protect critical public services, dramatically enhanced tree-trimming and new utility performance standards with penalties topped a list of recommendations issued Monday by the panel studying Connecticut’s readiness for future major storms.
Now consumers must let state officials know how much more they will pay for this system, said Joseph McGee, the chairman of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storm Panel.
The panel’s final report also warned that public- and private-sector emergency plans need to anticipate responses for more severe weather and called for improved communication among utilities, state and local governments, labor unions and private social service agencies.
Though the panel stopped short of recommending any specific increase in residential and business electric bills, McGee said that a portion of any added burden would fall on consumers.
“That’s the great public debate,” McGee said. “It needs to be transparent, and that’s where we need to begin this conversation.
Malloy said his office would issue a response to the report later this week, and that it could include state policy changes to be made immediately through an executive order, as well as recommendations for the General Assembly to consider during the regular 2012 session, which begins in February.
Malloy charged the panel with assessing both public- and private-sector readiness for weather-related disasters after Tropical Storm Irene and an Oct. 29 nor’easter. The former storm left more than 670,000 customers without electrical service while the latter eliminated power for more than 800,000 residences and businesses.
“We did many things right in the wake of these two storms, but when the margin of error is zero — like it was for these two storms — we have to do better,” Malloy said.
Connecticut Light & Power Co., the state’s largest electric utility serving about 1.2 million customers in 149 cities and towns, issued a brief written response.
“We share the objective of the Two-Storm Panel and the Governor to ensure Connecticut is better prepared for the next emergency, recognizing that weather-related events offer unique and extreme challenges for our communities,” the statement read. “The report of the panel is extensive and we have begun our review of the findings and recommendations that pertain to CL&P. In the meantime, we have already taken a number of steps to strengthen our own preparedness and to engage with state and municipal leaders to improve our collective response to adverse events.”
ASSUME THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO
CL&P absorbed the majority of criticism, both from public officials and from consumers, after power restoration efforts took between nine and 12 days after each of the two storms. Criticism was particularly high following the October nor’easter, which dumped between 1 and 2 feet of snow on much of northern and central Connecticut and dropped temperatures below freezing.
Shortly after that event, CL&P President Jeffrey Butler resigned and the company announced new administrative assignments to improve readiness for future storms. The company had failed to make power restoration deadlines following the October storm and Butler had conceded that CL&P had struggled to secure the private contractors it needed in a timely fashion.
McGee’s panel echoed the conclusions reported last month by Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based public safety and crisis management firm led by former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Witt.
CL&P has an emergency response plan that cites a worst case scenario of more than 100,000 outages. “This is far less than the number of outages experienced during the two storms,” McGee’s panel wrote, “and clearly less than the outages that should be anticipated should a Category 3 Hurricane strike Connecticut.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, which is used to classify hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean or northern Pacific Ocean, ranks categories 1 through 5 in terms of increasing severity. A Category 3 Hurricane features winds ranging from 111 to 130 mph with “high risk of injury or death” and “devastating damage” to buildings, other structures and trees.
Besides pressing all utilities to devise plans to reflect “a true worst-case scenario,” the state also should develop performance standards — including penalties — for utilities to meet in future crises, the panel recommended.
A major portion of the panel’s report also questions whether state and local government readiness plans are too mild, failing to anticipate the worst possible weather Connecticut is likely to face in the coming decades.
The state Department of Emergency Management considers a strong Category 3 Hurricane, such as the one that struck Connecticut in 1938, as the “most probable,” worst-case disaster scenario facing the state, the panel reported. And meteorologists for the National Weather Service testified that Connecticut is overdue for a major hurricane.
A Category 3 storm would far exceed either Irene or the October nor’easter, with the potential to black out the entire state, the panel reported. While total damage for both storms was set at between $750 million and $1 billion, damage from the 1938 hurricane, adjusted for inflation, tops $54 billion, the report states.
The panel also reported that meteorological testimony showed sea levels are expected to rise by 1.5 feet by midcentury, and the storm surge during Irene already came “perilously close to flooding water and sewage treatment facilities.”
Besides upgrading emergency response plans, state transportation and environmental protection officials should develop new engineering standards to ensure that new road, bridge, sewage treatment plant and other infrastructure construction reflects the more severe weather and other environmental risks Connecticut faces, the panel recommended.
ENHANCING TREE-TRIMMING AND BURYING LINES
Another key step in better preparedness, the panel recommended, involves recognizing that past vegetation management efforts were insufficient. Fallen trees and tree limbs were responsible for the bulk of the outages in both storms, including 90 percent of those during Irene.
CL&P proposed last month that it increase its tree-trimming budget by 10 percent compared with its annual average over the prior decade.
McGee’s panel did not recommend a specific increase, but first called for a statewide tree risk assessment study. This would be followed by a five-year collaborative effort among utilities, towns and the state to implement an enhanced tree-trimming program.
The panel also recommended that Connecticut establish a statewide Hazardous Tree Removal Fund that would provide matching grants to residents who will help pay to remove trees on private property that pose a risk to electric wires.
Utility maintenance of poles and other related structures also was insufficient and needs to be upgraded, the report concludes.
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. But it stopped short of recommending extensive burying of existing overhead lines.
The Two Storm Panel said burying lines needs to be studied immediately. If there is public support for added costs, McGee said, the limited, strategic burying of key lines could be done to ensure that critical services — police and fire protection, shelters, groceries stores and gasoline stations — are protected in each community.
“We also recognize we are not going to underground the whole system,” he said.
Malloy, who is former mayor of Stamford, said burying of lines helped protect vital services in key portions of his city.
The two storms resulted in “minimal loss of life, medical emergencies and loss of property,” the report added. Most of the 13 fatalities and medical problems were related to carbon monoxide poisoning or other issues related to the misuse of backup power sources.
Nonetheless, the panel said communications needs to be improved significantly among all parties involved in emergency response.
Other recommendations of the panel include:
Forming a municipal/utility working group to ensure that utilities understand each community’s top priorities for power restoration during a crisis.
And holding regular emergency preparedness meetings in each city and town, and periodic regional training exercises involving utilities, public agencies and private social service agencies.
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