HARTFORD, CT — Their constituents were without power for days in the middle of a pandemic so lawmakers crafted legislation that they hope will prevent it from happening in the future by holding utility companies accountable.
Just how far the legislation goes was part of the debate Wednesday in the House chamber.
For the past two months, the co-chairs of the Energy and Technology Committee have been crafting legislation that they say will force utility companies to put ratepayers before shareholders. The legislation passed the House 136 to 4.
Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, the House co-chair of the committee, said the goal of the “Take Back Our Grid” bill is to deliver greater value to the ratepayers of Connecticut with higher standards for storm response and emission reductions.
“And if our utilities fall short, it gives our regulators the tools they need to penalize them,” Arconti said.
The bill will require utilities to pay customers $25 for each day power is out beyond 96 consecutive hours, and $250 for lost food and medicine if power is out over the same period of time.
The bill also will require utilities to provide the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority and the Energy and Technology Committee with a report about how it prepares and responds to storms by January 1.
Eversource Energy, one of the largest utilities in Connecticut, was widely criticized for a rate hike in July, followed by a slow response to Tropical Storm Isaias which hit on Aug. 4. Those incidents prompted several public hearings and have caused regulators to open a docket to investigate.
Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said, “Eversource is just too big. It’s too unaccountable. It’s a regulated utility so we’ve got regulators, but have they done anything to help solve this problem? There’s an awful lot of people in this state, an awful lot of people in my district who say, ‘No.’”
He said it’s up to the legislature to investigate and figure out how to solve the problem “and we need to investigate big ideas.”
Dubitsky said some people believe it would be good to break up Eversource. He said the legislature needs to study how it distributes electricity in this state.
“I also don’t think it would be a bad idea to break up Eversource,” Rep. Pat Wilson Pheanious said. “When you get that rich and you put your shareholders before the people who are paying your bills, maybe you don’t need to be in a hole, maybe you need to be smaller.”
She said she’s also glad Eversource won’t be able to “charge us as they are increasing their rates.”
Wilson Pheanious said she’s sad the legislation won’t compensate her constituents who lost food and medicine in August during Tropical Storm Isaias when the resulting power outage lasted longer than five days in some instances.
Some lawmakers wondered whether the bill would increase rates to their customers.
Arconti said he doesn’t believe that will be the result.
“We do not want to inflict any more pain to our constituents through increased rates,” Arconti said. “We want to increase the value of the utility that our constituents are already paying in their rates.”
Arconti said if the utilities underperform, PURA will have the tools to penalize them.
Rep. Craig Ackert, R-Coventry, said where Eversource failed in responding to Tropical Storm Isaias was in their communication with the towns and ratepayers.
He said they “utterly failed,” in communicating restoration times.
Arconti said regulators will be able to look at communication during storm events when they are assessing a utility’s performance.
He said some of the changes in the bill that give PURA more time to decide a case will have an impact. The time was extended from 180 days to 200 days.
Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said he suspects that a year or two from now they will be revisiting the legislation.
“I think it’s a step. I’m not sure how I would define it yet,” Candelora said.
He said he’s concerned about what impact the legislation will have on the electricity grid and the rates.