Majority Democrats in the state Senate announced a multi-tiered initiative Wednesday to better safeguard electric service and to hold Connecticut’s utilities accountable through new performance standards and penalties.

The proposal includes a $300 million state investment over the next decade to create “microgrids” — sections of community centers with extra safeguards to ensure electric service remains available for grocery stores, gasoline stations and other vital service providers during large-scale outages.

“It is imperative that Connecticut’s utility companies be prepared for the next storm so that our residents’ health and safety are not needlessly put at risk and that (utilities) are held accountable for their performance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. “Connecticut residents shouldn’t be left in the dark — and if utility companies can’t restore power in a timely manner, we’ll hold them financially accountable for their failures.”

Connecticut Light & Power Co., the state’s largest electric utility serving about 1.2 million customers in 149 cities and towns, pledged Wednesday to work with state and municipal officials.

“We welcome this legislative dialogue and look forward to working with the Governor and the General Assembly to review and improve Connecticut’s emergency preparedness,” CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross said.

“CL&P has already taken a number of proactive steps in this area,” he said. “For example, we’ve met with the regional Councils of Government and secured their feedback, assigned town liaisons to all of the 149 communities we serve, and proposed a variety of infrastructure hardening initiatives including enhanced tree trimming.  We’ve had very constructive conversations with municipal and state officials on future opportunities to improve and will continue working with them during this legislative session.”

Democrats, who control 22 of the 36 seats in the Senate, didn’t outline specific standards or penalties Wednesday, adding that their proposal would charge the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority, with developing those rules.

That concept also has drawn support from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as well as from leaders of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee, and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, did endorse a Massachusetts statute back in November imposes fines up to 2.5 percent of annual transmission and distribution revenues for poor utility company performance.

That statute reportedly could penalize Massachusetts electric companies up to $20 million per year.

State officials here have been focused on improving the reliability of Connecticut’s electric service — as well as emergency response programs in both the public and private sectors — since more than 1.5 million residential and business customers lost power between Tropical Storm Irene in late August and an Oct. 29 Nor’easter combined.

Malloy formed his Two Storm Panel last fall to study issues related to these storms, put writing new utility standards into law, complete with penalties for poor performance, at the top of a list of recommendations sent to the governor in January. That panel 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.

The Senate Democrats’ plan echoed two other proposals from the Malloy panel: expanding trimming of trees near power lines and developing microgrids.

“We have to focus on” tree-trimming, said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, the other co-chairman of Energy and Technology, adding that roughly 90 percent of the outages in this past year’s two major storms were related to fallen trees or limbs. “It may not be the most exciting topic. … But it is at the heart of the problem.”

The Senate Democrats’ plan would require the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to work with utilities, municipalities and others to develop a five-year plan to enhance tree-trimming near power lines.

It also would create a new fund to provide matching grants to assist homeowners who are willing to trim or cut down trees that may be at risk of interfering with power lines.

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.

Much of that added cost was tied to enhanced tree-trimming, but it also reflected upgrading older utility poles and related structures that support power lines.

CL&P stopped short of recommending extensive burying of existing overhead lines, warning that could increase costs significantly.

The Two Storm Panel recommended a pilot program looking at selective burying of lines.

But the Senate Democrats suggested making $300 million — to be financed over the long-term — available over the next 10 years to better protect electric service in vital community centers. This could involve providing new, alternative power sources, such as fuel cells or solar energy, Williams said.

But it also could involve some selective burying of power lines, particularly if it could be coordinated with municipal projects that already involve excavation near these lines — such as road or sewer line repair work.

“We ought to at least know when towns are doing this kind of work,” Williams said “so we can stretch the (microgrid) dollars whenever possible.”

But one of the leaders of the Senate Republican Caucus, Len Fasano of North Haven, said “Connecticut families and businesses pay some of the highest energy costs in the nation, … and yet there is nothing in the Democrats’ energy proposal to provide relief to ratepayers.”

One way to address this problem, which discourages business growth, is “to give PURA back its teeth,” Fasano added. “The Democrats cannot sufficiently improve oversight of utilities while ignoring the fact that PURA’s stature as an independent watchdog has been gutted at the expense of ratepayers.”

Other components of the Senate Democratic plan include:

  • Requiring utilities and towns to enhance coordination to ensure swifter clearing of roads after major storms that knock down power lines. Municipal leaders complained after the 2011 storms that a slow utility response to clear downed power lines delayed available municipal crews from clearing many roads, particularly in rural and suburban communities.
  • Requiring utilities to develop mutual aid compacts showing they could expand their tree- and line-crew work force by 500 percent during major outages. One of the principal criticisms state officials leveled against CL&P during the 2011 storms was that the company moved too slowly to bring in additional repair crews from out of state to assist with power restoration.
  • Creating a statewide commercial loan program to help commercial buildings upgrade to cleaner and more reliable energy systems.
  • Launching a new outreach effort to ensure new home builders are aware of all existing state and federal incentive programs to promote clean and efficient energy.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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