The Two Storm Panel heard from executives of state’s two utility companies about how they handled the one-two punch of Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm and how it will improve for the next storm.
The presentations by the two utility companies to the eight-member panel appointed by Gov. Dannel Malloy after Tropical Storm Irene were different in their approach. The panel is seeking to gather information on response to the two storms and will make recommendations to Malloy in January. It’s one of six review panels looking at the storm and the utilities’ response.
At Tuesday’s hearing in Hartford three executives from United Illuminating, which had 210,000 customers lose power during Tropical Storm Irene and 52,000 during the October snowstorm, sat at the table as they gave their presentation to the panel in a legislative hearing room. Five executives from Connecticut Light & Power and its parent company Northeast Utilities, opted to give their presentation using a remote microphone and paced back and forth with it as they talked about the impact of the storms on their infrastructure. During the freak pre-Halloween snowstorm CL&P at its peak had 830,000 customers without power—the highest number in its 100 year history.
Jeffrey Butler, president and chief operating officer of CL&P, who gave twice daily presentations to the media during the recent storm, was not at the meeting.
Mitch Gross, communications director for CL&P, said people shouldn’t read anything into Butler’s absence.
“He’s busy running a company and these gentlemen are thoroughly experienced and were involved in the storm restoration,” Gross said.
Dana Louth, vice president of asset strategy for Northeast Utilities said the storms the state experienced over the past six weeks were, “once-in-30 year, 40-year,” events.
In order to respond to the October storm CL&P swelled to 10 times its normal size.
“I admit we were using every available resource to manage those crews,” William Quinlan, vice president of customer solutions for CL&P, told the panel.
“It did stretch us, there’s no question. It stretched us in every way,” Mike Ahern, vice president of utility services for Northeast Utilities, said.
He said Halloween scared him the most because there were wires down in so many locations. As a safety measure he said they fielded 500 wires down guards to guard the down wires they knew about. But Halloween was canceled in many communities as a result of the storm.
CL&P’s communications with municipal officials has been widely criticized especially by some of the towns hardest hit in the recent storm. And the company’s executives said its one of the areas it will be looking at as it undergoes its internal review of the storm.
Simsbury was one of the towns hit particularly hard by the storm and its First Selectwoman Mary Glassman expressed frustration with CL&P’s inability to give her information she could use to help ensure the safety of her residents.
State Rep. Linda Schofield, D-Simsbury, said she thinks CL&P needs to do better in assessing the damage after the storm ends. She said on Route 10 across from its operations center an entire neighborhood was devastated, yet they contended they were going to have the town restored within a day.
“They under estimated the extent of the damage,” Schofield said during a break. “The main arteries were not representative of the neighborhood roads.”
She said they also need to improve the communication between the National Guard, municipal officials, and the utility. She said it felt like each had their own marching orders and no one was in charge of all of them.
The roads hadn’t been cleared in some parts of town that a house burned to the ground 10 days after the storm hit because emergency crews couldn’t get there to save it, she said.
Seven municipal officials will give their own testimony to the panel at 2 p.m. Click here to read what they had to say.
Joseph McGee, chairman of the Two Storm Panel, said one of the issues the panel is trying to understand is how a utility can get the approval of regulators to improve its infrastructure overtime because infrastructure improvement is embedded in the rate approval process.
“It may not be the best way to make infrastructure investments,” McGee said.
Because it requires the utility to spread those investments over a long period of time, but CL&P alone has spent nearly $250 million repairing its infrastructure over the course of the two storms. He said he thinks the utilities know how much it will cost them to strengthen the system, but wondered why they’ve never presented those improvements to the state.
“The likelihood of a large storm is not immediate,” Louth said. “And by that I mean these are once-in-30 year, 40-year events.”
“We’re usually dealing with more short term issues when we go in for rate cases,” he added.
McGee countered that the National Weather Service told them a Category III Hurricane is inevitable in Connecticut and it will take the power out of Connecticut for a month.
“At what point do you present options to strengthen the system?” McGee asked.
“We’d certainly be willing to present those options at anytime,” Louth said.
Quinlan said the question is how far do you go with the “hardening” of the system.
“Clearly if you can reduce an outage from 10 days to five and you tell me it might cost X amount of dollars, I might take that deal,” McGee said. “Right now I don’t have that choice as a customer.”
Sometimes the utility doesn’t even own some of the infrastructure such as poles in the case of United Illuminating. UI told the panel it owns 60 percent of its poles, the other 40 percent are owned by AT&T even though both companies hang their lines from it.