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Concord, N.H. — Spurred by major storms that have left millions of New Englanders without power, a Senate committee is questioning what can be done at the federal level to better prepare for and respond to natural disasters.
New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown requested Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and a freak October snowstorm. The latter left more than 2 million utility customers without power in New England — some for as long as 11 days — and senators said they wanted to explore and expose any defects in utility preparation and response that may have slowed restoration efforts.
The panel heard from John Bilda, manager of Norwich Public Utilities, a municipally owned utility in Norwich, Conn., that has taken numerous steps to maximize reliability — including cross-training workers to do both construction and electric line work, creating a “micro-grid” system for use during emergencies, and participating in a regional mutual aid system.
Calling the Norwich utility a model for the rest of the nation, Blumenthal said Congress should provide incentives for other utilities to create micro-grids, which ensure that at least part of a community has power during a disaster, and ensure every state has access to similar mutual aid.
“We received strong aid eventually from mutual assistance groups, but it took time, and that’s why the process needs to be strengthened,” he said, describing his travels around the state after Tropical Storm Irene and the October storm.
“What I found was senior citizens and families in shelters,” he said. “There were real life-threatening emergencies that existed.”
But expanding those efforts to other states would be complicated because of jurisdictional issues regarding distribution and transmission of power, officials said.
Norman Bay of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said his office is about a month away from releasing a final report the October storm. But he pointed out that 95 percent of the outages were caused by damage to distribution lines, which are regulated by states, not transmission lines, which his agency has jurisdiction over. Asked by Shaheen whether the agency should also oversee reliability standards for distribution lines, Bay demurred, saying Congress will have to decide that.
Shaheen said whether it’s through better standards or incentives for innovation, more must be done to protect the electricity grid, given that catastrophic weather events appear to be increasing in frequency.
“It’s no longer a situation where once in every five or 10 years we’re going to get a significant weather event,” she said.