The one, two punch of Tropical Storm Irene and the October Nor’easter made it clear to lawmakers that it’s necessary to pass legislation requiring the utility companies to meet specific performance standards or face millions of dollars in fines.
House Speaker Chris Donovan and Energy & Technology Co-Chairwoman Rep. Vickie Nardello, who have been in the dark for four days, said it’s time to start holding Connecticut’s largest utility company responsible for restoration times.
“We have some of the highest electric rates in the country, but we don’t have the best service,” Donovan said. “You would think for the best rates we would have better service and best service.”
Donovan and Nardello said their legislation will be modeled after legislation passed in Massachusetts in 2009 after an ice storm there proved challenging for the Fitchburg Gas and Electric Light Company.
Nardello said if a utility company does not meet that standard set forth in the legislation then it will be fined up to 2.5 percent of its transmission and distribution revenues from the previous calendar year. The fines would likely amount to millions of dollars, which could not be passed back to ratepayers, Nardello said.
The standards in the legislation will require a utility to restore power in a certain period of time depending on the weather event. It will also require an investigation of the response and will give the Public Utility Regulatory Authority more power during weather related emergencies.
“Benchmarks are where we feel Connecticut can do a better job,” Nardello said.
In addition to setting standards for emergency situations, Nardello and Donovan, said the legislation will also look at requiring the companies to maintain a certain number of linemen. The number of linemen and how long those linemen are allowed to work was an issue raised at the public hearings following Tropical Storm Irene.
Currently Connecticut Light & Power has about 200 linemen working to restore power and has testified at public hearings on Irene that increasing the number of linemen in non-emergency times is not reasonable and not the industry standard.
“That’s a business decision and I think they need to change that,” Donovan said.
“I think what we have to look at is what’s happening in other states,” Nardello said. “If other states are restoring more quickly than Connecticut than certainly what CL&P is doing is not working at the current time.”
Other neighboring states, which didn’t experience the same number of outages from the October Nor’easter, are seeing power restored at a faster pace with more crews. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy expressed disappointment Tuesday with the number of crews to come into Connecticut to help with restoration after this recent storm.
“Apparently there’s a difference between Massachusetts and Connecticut. More crews, faster pace, it’s worth looking into it,” Donovan said. “So we can say to our constituents, those suffering with lack of power, we as your legislators feel that. I’m wearing this coat until I have power…I’m wearing it until everybody has power.”
He said as he drives around his hometown of Meriden where more than 20,000 customers are still out of power he hears the lack of confidence being expressed by residents.
He said the legislation isn’t meant to be punitive, but it’s expected to deliver a level of certainty to customers which doesn’t exist today.
“We’re hoping that by setting up these standards and a reasonable plan worked out, with reasonable fines levied if they do not make it that the public will say, ‘Okay I feel more confident in what’s happening‘,” Donovan said.
He said in Meriden a CL&P liaison has been assigned to them, but that liaison has been unable to give them any answers about what’s going on.
“Clearly that has to change,” Donovan said. “The gentleman was unable to tell us how many crews he could assign to my town the next day. That’s really not working with us and providing us information.”
Nardello said she’s been calling CL&P three times a day to get updates from the company.
“I’ve lived in the same house for 37 years and this is the first time I’ve lost power for four days,” Nardello said Wednesday.
The fact that CL&P’s online outage map went down Tuesday afternoon and was not restored until late also did not help the company’s communications woes. The map was back up on Wednesday and a recorded message on CL&P’s 800 number tells customers more than 1,000 crews are working.
Jeffrey Butler, president and COO of CL&P, said Wednesday morning at a briefing that “four days without power can be very challenging, very difficult, very frustrating, and very upsetting.“
He said there are 1,041 line and tree crews working and it has begun shifting its focus from assessment to restoration.
He said the October snowstorm impacted more customers than Irene. Of its 1.2 million customers, 730,000 or 59 percent of its customers, were impacted during Irene. During this recent storm 955,000 or 77 percent of its customers were impacted.
Butler maintains that the company did what it could to prepare for the storm, but said the amount of snow was “far more significant than had been forecast.”
“This event as is came in Saturday started earlier and lasted longer with more snow accumulation,” Butler said.
Under intense questioning from reporters, Butler said his company did plan for long term outages, but “I did not expect it to be anywhere close to where almost one million of our discreet customers lost their power.”
He said the storm exceeded anything he had seen forecasted.