Six months after a freak, late-autumn storm set off a prolonged power outage for tens of thousands of state residents, the Connecticut Senate unanimously approved a bill that aims to make sure the state is better prepared in the future.
The sweeping measure, which cleared the chamber this afternoon, would establish a system of performance standards for power companies and telecommunications providers. If they fail to meet certain benchmarks for the restoration of service, they could face stiff financial penalties.
The bill would also set up a pilot program for an electrical micro-grid. These regional, small-scale power systems can run independently of the larger electricity distribution system and could power clusters of prisons or hospitals, for example, during a prolonged power outage in a larger area of the state.
And the bill directs state regulators to establish standards for everything from utility company staffing levels to tree-trimming policies to the number of cell phone towers with back-up battery power.
Taken together, the package of proposals won’t prevent future outages, said Sen. John Fonfara, co-chairman of the legislator’s energy and technology committee.
“That’s impossible and no one should believe that would ever be the result of this legislation,” Fonfara said. “But we can and we must do better and this legislation takes us a long way to beginning of that process.”
The bill establishes a process for benchmarks for power restoration, with the prospect of “fairly significant penalties” if the companies fail to comply, Fonfara said.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said the establishment of those performance standards is a key component of the legislation. “Establishing performance standards is absolutely critical,” he said. “With performance standards comes penalties for not meeting those standards. And as long as those standards are real and fair and responsible, we should hold the utilities accountable if they don’t meet them.”
The legislation, which now goes to the House of Representatives, comes in response to a pair of storms that devastated the state last year. Hurricane Irene struck in late August, causing about 700,000 households and businesses to lose power for up to two weeks.
Following Irene, Gov. Dannel Malloy commissioned a panel come up with ways to lessen the impact of future storms; many of their recommendations were incorporated into the legislation that cleared the Senate today.
Then, in late October, a winter storm plunged more than 800,000 electric utility customers into darkness, some for as long as 10 days.
In the aftermath of that crisis, Malloy commissioned a national emergency-preparedness consultant to review the responses of the utility companies. The consultant, Wit Associates, concluded that Connecticut Light & Power, the state’s largest electric utility, was grossly unprepared for the Oct. 29 storm.
Malloy said the measures endorsed by the Senate today will provide a road map for responding to future emergencies as well as muting the impact of prolonged outages.
“While I hope that the two major storms we endured last year in a little more than six weeks were an aberration, the reality is we need to take every possible precaution to make sure we learn from those two unprecedented events,” the governor said in a statement sent moments after the vote was tallied.
“While we can’t control what Mother Nature throws our way, enacting tougher standards for utility companies and improving communication and training for state and local officials are two actions that will make sure we’re in a better position to respond once a storm is over. In addition, by making a concerted effort to invest in micro-grids, we are embracing a 21st Century solution to an age old problem.”
Sen. Beth Bye represents West Hartford, Farmington, Bloomfield and Burlington, communities that were hit hard by the October storm.
“The performance standards for utility companies that we are putting in place today, along with the tree-trimming and training and other policies, are going to go a long way toward ensuring that Connecticut’s utility companies are better prepared and more responsive next Mother Nature takes a swing at us,” Bye said.
The storms and subsequent outages had a profound impact on those who lived through them. But as difficult as those days were, one lawmaker said it was a magical time for his children.
“My boys actually enjoyed being without power,” said Sen. Jason Welch, a Republican from Bristol. They now request “power out days,” where they light candles, pull out the board games, fire up the woodstove and pretend that the lights are out.
“For some reason, unlike their parents, they were able to find some enjoyment in it all,” Welch said.