Utility outage bill clears state Senate

Hartford - The state Senate on Saturday approved a package of storm preparedness initiatives aimed at preventing some of the problems and lengthy power outages that happened last year with 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 bipartisan legislation passed on a unanimous vote and now goes to the House. It tasks the state's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority with creating storm-performance benchmarks for phone companies and electric and gas utilities.

The companies submit a plan 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 bill says the utilities would be permitted to raise rates for "reasonable costs" incurred.

The regulatory authority could impose penalties 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 would include emergency preparedness standards, minimum staffing levels, mutual aid agreements, communication protocols and the operation of a call center.

The utilities would have until April to submit their plans to the regulatory authority.

The bill also requires phone companies to credit 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.

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, leaving 800,000 households without power. It took utility crews nine days to fully restore service.

Six weeks later, a pre-Halloween snowstorm dumped up to 18 inches of snow, snapping of branches and resulting in a record 880,000 utility outages that took 12 days to fix.

j.reindl@theday.com

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