Utilities' storm performance in Connecticut put under the microscope

Hartford - Officials from Connecticut's electric utilities said Tuesday they had begun reviewing their preparations and responses to the recent October nor'easter and the remnants of Hurricane Irene, each of which left hundreds of thousands of customers in the dark for days.

Dave Boguslawski, vice president for transmission at Connecticut Light and Power, told members of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's so-called Two Storm Panel that the utility is working on a self-assessment and has asked the North American Electric Reliability Corp. to review CL&P's system.

Utility officials already have identified some areas for improvement, such as working with towns more closely to open up roads blocked by downed trees and wires and speeding up the process of bringing in out-of-state crews and contractors to help with restoration.

"With the weather that's coming and predicted to have more, we need to bring in crews even faster than our current ability," acknowledged Robert Hybsch, vice president of customer operations at CL&P.

Malloy's committee is expected to provide the governor with recommendations for policy changes and possible legislation in December. It's one of numerous studies under way, including a hearing held by the General Assembly's Insurance and Real Estate Committee, which is reviewing the insurance industry's response to the two storms.

Each storm left hundreds of thousands of power customers in the dark for days - some for as long as 11 days. And in many communities, they also left relationships with local officials frayed.

Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda told the panel that NPU has beefed up both maintenance and crew training over the past 10 years for daily and storm operations.

The municipally owned utility has 928 wire miles strung on 10,000 poles along 165 miles of roads, Bilda said.

About 10 years ago, when infrared technology was introduced, NPU started annual inspections of the entire system to look for "hot spots" that would show a weakness in the line that could come down in a storm. The utility also has a four-year cycle of tree trimming along roadways.

Four years ago, NPU officials received approval from employee unions on a cross-training plan that in effect doubles the number of line crews during storm emergencies. Gas, water and sewer employees are cross-trained to serve as ground assistance crews to line workers during storms.

During normal weather, Norwich has three crews of four line workers each. During emergencies, two line workers team with two cross-trained employees from water, gas and sewer divisions to serve as knowledgeable ground assistants, Bilda said, doubling the number of crews on the road.

But Bilda said sometimes being a small-sized utility helps in controlling emergency situations, sometimes the lack of resources can hamper the utility.

To improve communication with other city emergency responders and the public, NPU installed a new emergency operations center at its utility headquarters at 16 S. Golden St.

Computers monitor the power systems from the center, and outages are communicated to city police, fire and public officials. Updates are posted on the NPU website "in real time," Bilda said.

The media also is allowed access to the center for frequent updates, he said.

As with Irene, some town officials complained they could not get straight answers from CL&P, the state's largest utility, about when power was going to be restored. They also described a lack of real-time information about outages; CL&P liaisons who were helpful but had little to no information; CL&P liaisons who couldn't be reached; a lack of tree and power line crews designated to particular communities; confusion about whether the power was restored in certain neighborhoods; and a lack of understanding by CL&P about local officials' priorities for power restoration, information they were given during Irene.

"I understand these are horrific situations. In my opinion, (the power) was out much longer than what was necessary," said Tolland Town Manager Steve Werbner, who said he received physical threats from angry residents after CL&P failed to meet its goal of restoring electricity to 99 percent of customers eight days after the October storm. After he told CL&P about the threats, Werbner said Tolland got three more liaisons, a high-level manager and all the crews it needed.

Hybsch stressed that both storms hit the state very hard.

There were an unprecedented 16,101 "trouble spots" during the aftermath of Irene. Following the October nor'easter, there were 25,500 "trouble spots." The pre-Halloween storm was particularly damaging because many trees still had leaves on their branches, which were pulled down by the heavy, wet snow.

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