A panel convened to assess the state’s response to two devastating storms last year turned over a report with 82 recommendations on how the state can better prepare for future disasters.
The panel was convened by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in September after Tropical Storm Irene, which left hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents without power, some for more than a week. When a freak October snowstorm left even more residents in the dark, the panel shifted its mission to include the recovery effort to that storm.
The Two Storm Panel’s report called the impact of both storms a “wake-up call to Connecticut” that tested the state’s utility infrastructure more significantly than it had been in the last 25 years.
“It was a traumatic event for everyone,” Malloy said at a press conference. “We needed to take stock of how we performed as a state, as utilities, as municipalities.”
The report made a number of recommendations for improvements at the state’s largest utility, Connecticut Light & Power but did not directly recommend it hire more permanent line crews to repair downed power lines.
In the aftermath of the storms, Frank Cirillo, assistant business manager of IBEW Local 420, the union that represents line crews, said CL&P’s response was slowed by the fact that the number of line crews and mechanics it keeps on staff has dwindled as its customer base has grown.
The utility relied heavily on a mutual aid program, which called in crews from out-of-state companies to get power restored to residents.
Joe McGee, chairman of the Two Storm Panel, said CL&P mismanaged those additional crews.
“Clearly in the implementation of their emergency response plan they had problem managing a huge influx of outside labor and they’re really going to have to work on that,” he said.
McGee said the decision to maintain more line crews in-house is a management decision up to the utility. But CL&P should either hire more crews or get better at managing the borrowed ones, he said.
“It has to be one or the other,” he said.
Though the report found that the crews in the field “worked hard and did admirable work,” it said the panel recognized an “apparent toxic relationship between labor and management” at the company.
It suggested CL&P improve its labor management relations by creating a committee that includes elected labor leaders and makes annual reports to state regulators.
The panel also recommended lawmakers authorize regulators at the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to develop performance standards to hold utilities accountable in the aftermath of disasters.
Other states, like Massachusetts have passed similar laws enabling regulators to fine utilities who fail to meet bench-marked standards. Malloy said his office would likely be recommending a similar proposal later this week.
The report recommends the consideration of emerging technologies like microgrids and fuel cells to make sure town centers have power and can offer some services during large power outages. Malloy said he has championed the issue since he was mayor of Stamford, where he wanted to set up a grid in the city’s downtown area.
“Do I think that that’s an appropriate way to look at development in the future? The obvious answer is I do,” he said.
However, it’s unlikely the state can fund the development of those systems, he said.
“I think that more likely than not we’ve got to make it easier for those systems to be built out,” he said.
Another section of the report focused on how to reduce the damage caused by falling trees during a storm. Trees took down 90 percent of the wires that feel during Irene, it said.
“We’ve got to be more aggressive in protecting our power lines,” Malloy said.
The report recommended that the Department of Transportation’s tree trimming budget be increased by $1 million a year over the next three years. CL&P has also recommended it be approved to spend $366 million on trimming over the next decade, the report said. That’s about 50 percent more than it spent over the previous decade, it said.
But as CL&P considers spending more on hardening its infrastructure it raises questions about whether rate payers in Connecticut are willing to pay more for electricity. The utility wants to make a $2.2 billion investment in infrastructure which would make it 30 to 40 percent more resilient, McGee said. That would translate to a 10 percent increase in customers’ monthly delivery bills, he said.
“If we can demonstrate that that’s true, will the public be willing to support an increase in their monthly bill in exchange for an increase in the resiliency of the strength of the system,” he asked. “That’s the great public debate.”
Like the report released last month by the Witt Associates, the panel found the utility prepared for a storm with more than 100,000 customers out of power, instead preparing for a storm where 500,000 customers would be without power.
One hundred thousand outages is about 10 percent of CL&P’s customer base, and a dramatic underestimation of the more than 800,000 that occurred in the pre-Halloween storm.
“The utilities’ emergency plans should be based on a true worst case scenario,” the report said. “In Connecticut, this would mean planning for the effects of a Category 3 hurricane.”
A major hurricane could take down up to 70 or 80 percent of the state’s trees, compared to the 1 to 2 percent knocked down by Tropical Storm Irene, the report said. The state should prepare for more dramatic weather as a result of climate change, it said.
McGee said the decision to include concerns raised by climate change was not a political one.
“We had national experts come before us, and made it very clear that sea rise is occurring and we need to prepare for it,” he said.
“Because of climate change we simply have to expect more hard weather and it happening more frequently,” he said. “… There is a certain reality that comes with the trend in climate change and we have to be better prepared for the future.”
In a statement, Al Lara, spokesman for CL&P’s parent company Northeast Utilities, said the company shares the same objective as the panel and Malloy and wants to see Connecticut better prepared for the next weather-related emergency.
“The report of the Panel is extensive and we have begun our review of the findings and recommendations that pertain to CL&P,” he said. “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.”