The state Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation Saturday which will help improve state and utility company response to widespread power outages created by natural disasters.
Lawmakers were prompted to draft legislation after 1 million Connecticut customers lost power during Tropical Storm Irene, and soon after that another 1.4 million customers were without electricity during the freak October snowstorm.
Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said the two storms “crippled our state” and this bill goes a long way toward preparing for future storm events.
The bill allows the Public Utility Regulatory Authority to open a docket to make sure the utilities are properly staffed, have adequate mutual aid agreements, and are meeting restoration targets.
A report by an independent agency brought to the state by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy following the October snowstorm found that Connecticut Light & Power prepared for a storm where only 100,000 customers would be without power. The dramatic underestimation lead to several other problems, including a delayed response from out-of-state contractors who were only called when the storm was just hours away from hitting the state.
In addition to opening up a docket, the bill also creates penalties for utilities unable to comply with emergency storm restoration. If utilities fail to meet reasonable standards the state can apply civil penalties not to exceed 2.5 percent of a utility company’s annual distribution of revenue.
The bill also requires enhanced tree trimming efforts to be undertaken by the utilities, establishes a pilot micro-grid program, and a study of the impact of potentially requiring backup power systems for telecommunication towers and antennas. It also calls for a statewide drill of all emergency responders and the utilities.
In addition, it asks the regulatory authority to initiate a docket to study the feasibility of establishing a program to reimburse residential customers for food spoilage and medication lost during power outages.
Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, who lost cellphone service following the October snowstorm, said he was glad to see the state was beginning to look into the issue of requiring backup electricity generation at cellphone towers. The issue first arose after Tropical Storm Irene and repeated itself during the October storm. He pointed out that cellphones have become the main source of communication for many households where people have pulled the plug on their land lines.
“It’s a matter of life or death,” he said.
Roraback said he doesn’t understand why cellphone companies wouldn’t want to install backup generation when erecting a tower. “The incremental added cost of backup power shouldn’ t be cost prohibitive when weighing the circumstances of emergency power,” Roraback said.
He admitted that asking about whether the cellphone carrier had backup generation on their towers was never a consideration he made when purchasing his cellphone contract.
The legislation requires the telecommunication companies to disclose the information about where they have or lack backup generation, but exempts it from the state’ s Freedom of Information laws.
Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, supported the legislation, but wished it included language which would allow municipal responders to get roads cleared quicker.
But overall “it’s not a baby step, it’ s a big huge step in the right direction,” he said.
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, agreed even though he wasn’t fond of the “food spoilage” docket.
“I think the last section with respect to a docket for food spoilage is unrealistic,” McKinney said. But “That section alone isn’ t a danger to a very good bill in my mind.”