Senate passes storm preparedness initiatives

Hartford - The state Senate today approved a package of storm preparedness initiatives aimed at preventing some of the problems and lengthy power outages that happened last year following Tropical Storm Irene and the late October snowstorm.

“We will never be able to stop all outages - that’s impossible” said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford. “But we can and we must do better, and this legislation takes us a long way.”

The legislation passed the Senate late this afternoon on a unanimous vote and now goes to the House. It empowers the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority - formerly the Department of Public Utility Control - to create storm performance benchmarks for electric and gas utilities and phone companies.

The firms must strive to minimize service outages, speed up service restoration and identify a cost-effective level of tree trimming and methods for “system hardening,” such as undergrounding wires.

The legislation says the utilities would be permitted to raise rates for “reasonable costs” incurred to meet the new standards.

The regulatory authority could impose penalties against the electric and gas utilities for “noncompliance” in an emergency. The penalty would be assessed as a credit to ratepayers and could not exceed 2.5 percent of the firm’s annual distribution revenue.

"Hopefully none of us have forgotten that so many of our constituents sat for days without power,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield. “Establishing performance standards is absolutely critical.”

The benchmarks must include preparedness standards for emergencies, addressing minimum staffing levels, mutual aid agreements, communication protocols and the operation of a call center.

The utilities have until April 2013 to tell the regulatory authority how it would meet the benchmarks.

The bill also requires landline and cellphone companies to give a bill credit to customers who lose power for more than 24 hours during a large-scale outage. By Oct. 1, the phone companies must issue annual reports on their ability to provide backup power to cell towers during outages.

The bill also establishes a pilot program to fund local clean-energy generation for critical facilities such as hospitals, prisons, sewage plants and police and fire stations.

Tropical Storm Irene hit the state on Aug. 28, downing 1 percent to 2 percent of the state's trees and leaving 800,000 utility customers without power. It took utility crews nine days to fully restore service.

Six weeks later, the pre-Halloween snowstorm dumped up to 18 inches of snow on foliage-heavy trees. The snapping of branches resulted in a record 880,000 utility outages that took 12 days to fix.

Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said she believes the bill will improve communication between the utilities and their customers and municipalities, a common complaint in the wake of Irene.

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