Dems Line Up To Support Storm Response Legislation [CTNewsJunkie]

February 15, 2012

Story as it appeared in

It may sound “mundane” but Sen. President Donald Williams said last year’s extreme weather and resulting power outages helped his caucus produce a set of proposals to make sure the state will be prepared for future storms.

Performance standards and penalties for utilities, road clearing protocols, additional tree trimming, and microgrids were all part of the package put forward Wednesday by the Senate Democratic caucus.

The proposals are not too different than what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has already included in his budget or what House Democrats proposed last November in the wake of the freak October snow storm.

Like the House Democrats, the Senate Democrats proposed the idea of penalties for utilities for poor performance, but like Malloy the Senate Democrats want the regulators at the Public Utility Regulatory Authority to come up with those performance standards and penalties.

“I don’t think most people in this state are interested in penalizing the utility, for the sake of penalizing them,“ Sen. John Fonfara, co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said. “What we want is to ensure power remains on whenever practicable.”

He said PURA will have the responsibility of determining what those penalties should be.

The proposal is similar to Malloy’s, which asks PURA to “establish minimum standards of performance for utilities in emergency preparation and restoration of service to customers in an emergency.” The standards include minimum staffing, targets for restoration, communication and deployment of utility crews.

Fonfara said energy issues are generally not partisan issues so he expects to receive support of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

“No one’s saying there shouldn’t be some consequence for not meeting the standards we establish,” Fonfara said. “I think everyone is in agreement on that.”

But not all Republicans are impressed with the Democratic proposal.

“Connecticut families and businesses pay some of the highest energy costs in the nation. This fact is a leading inhibitor to job growth and economic recovery; and yet there is nothing in the Democrats’ energy proposal to provide relief to ratepayers,” Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said Wednesday. “The Democrats cannot sufficiently improve oversight of utilities while ignoring the fact that PURA’s stature as an independent watchdog has been gutted at the expense of ratepayers.”

Republicans argue that when the former Department of Public Utility Control was merged with the Department of Environmental Protection last year the new agency transitioned too many staff members from the regulatory side to the policy side, effectively gutting its regulatory and rate setting ability.

It’s also not clear though where the House Democrats stand at the moment. Fonfara and his Co-Chairwoman Rep. Vickie Nardello have been know to differ in the past. Nardello was not immediately available for comment, but has suggested in the past that penalties be tied to executive pay.

Fonfara said there’s absolutely no division on these issues and the caucuses are in “lock-step” with Malloy on them.

“We have an obligation as policy makers not to forget about what happened to our state in the fall of 2010,” he said. “Energy and communications are no longer conveniences, but necessities in our lives.”

“We welcome this legislative dialogue and look forward to working with the Governor and the General Assembly to review and improve Connecticut’s emergency preparedness,” Mitch Gross, spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power, said.

“CL&P has already taken a number of proactive steps in this area. For example, we’ve met with the regional Councils of Government and secured their feedback, assigned town liaisons to all of the 149 communities we serve, and proposed a variety of infrastructure hardening initiatives including enhanced tree trimming,” he added.

Connecticut Light & Power had more than 800,000 customers without power following the October snow storm and received the most criticism and scrutiny. United Illuminating is the other utility in the state and it fared much better during the October storm and Tropical Storm Irene.

The Senate Democratic proposal also calls for an enhanced tree trimming program.

If the state had enhanced tree trimming program in place prior to the two storms, the state would have experienced 20 percent fewer power outages, Fonfara said. Trees were a big part of the problem in both Tropical Storm Irene and the October snow storm.

“It may not be the most exciting topic, but it is at the heart of the problem,” Fonfara said.

Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney said his caucus is embracing the residential tree trimming regulation proposed by the Office of the Consumer Counsel.

He said if a homeowner doesn’t respond to a tree trimming notice then it would be an automatic approval, instead of a denial. Right now, if a homeowner does not respond then the utility does not have permission to trim the tree.

The proposal will also require the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to create a five year collaborative tree trimming effort with municipalities and state agencies.

Malloy has proposed spending an additional $2 million on tree trimming in his budget. He has also proposed spending $500,000 for a real time regional training drill, and borrowing $5 million for a pilot program to develop microgrids.

The Senate Democratic proposal increases funding for microgrids to $300 million over 10 years and was expected to yield about 150 sites.

Microgrids would allow sites such as town centers or hospitals to remain operational during power outages.