In response to two powerful storms that struck Connecticut last year, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity and telecommunications service, the state Senate passed sweeping reforms on Saturday to better prepare the state for future severe weather events and to minimize the resulting utility service outages.
When thousands of families across the state were plunged into darkness after Tropical Storm Irene and a freak snow storm in October, utilities failed to restore power in a timely fashion. That failure left people without power for far too long. This comprehensive package of reforms will go far to protect residents in future storms and hold utility companies accountable for efficiency in restoring power.
The legislation requires the Public Utilities Regulator Authority (PURA) to establish performance standards for all utilities in Connecticut, and specifies penalties for noncompliance. Utility companies must develop and submit plans to PURA by July 1 for service restoration in emergencies, and update them every two years afterwards.
The bill also creates a pilot program to facilitate the installation of microgrids—localized electricity generation—in key locations such as hospitals and police stations, and orders a study on the provision of backup electric generators for cell phone towers.
Performance Standards for Utilities
Senate Bill 23 will require the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) to study and then establish minimum performance standards for emergency preparation and response for each electric distribution company and gas company in Connecticut. These standards must address:
Minimum staffing and equipment levels for outage planning and restoration (linemen, technicians, etc)
Targets for recovery and restoration of service based on the proportion of affected customers
Mutual aid agreements with out-of-state companies to bring in surplus workers as needed
Communication between utilities and customers, including during non-business hours, and to notify the public of service restoration estimates and dangerous conditions
Communication between and amongst utilities and government officials
Tree trimming practices to reduce outages due to fallen limbs
Safety standards for employees of each utility, mutual aid crews and private contractors
Other standards as PURA deems fit to prevent or restore service outages
Following the establishment of these standards by November 1 of this year, all electric and gas utilities will be required submit a plan to PURA on implementation of these standards, to be approved by PURA and updated annually. The legislation requires PURA to study and establish similar but separate performance standards for telecommunications utilities, including telephone and cable television companies.
Penalties for Noncompliance with Standards
Noncompliance with PURA’s performance standards could result in penalties of up to 2.5% of an electric or gas company’s annual distribution revenue, approximately $25 million in the case of Connecticut Light & Power. The penalties would be assessed as a credit on customer bills, and would not be recoverable by the utilities through increased rates.
In the event of a telecommunications service outage affecting more than ten percent of a company’s customers for over 24 hours, that company would be required to provide a bill credit to their customers proportional to the share of service not received.
The legislation would establish a $15 million micro-grid and loan pilot program to support local distributed electricity generation at hospitals, police and fire stations, prisons, water treatment plants and other critical locations. Funds will be allocated evenly among small, medium, and large towns.
Senate Bill 23 would also take steps to facilitate the undergrounding of power and telecommunications lines. In addition to the performance standards described above, the bill would require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to notify PURA of any pending road work projects over five miles in length or located a commercial area. PURA would then review the possibility of undergrounding lines at that location, and make suitable recommendations to the relevant utility companies.
Backup Generators for Cell Phone Towers
In order to facilitate uninterrupted telecommunications services for private residents and government officials during emergencies, the bill will require all telecommunications companies to report to PURA and the Department of Emergency Services & Public Protection (DESPP) annually concerning their ability to provide backup power to any Connecticut based towers or antennas during an electric service outage.
Upon receiving the first round of reports, PURA must make recommendations to the General Assembly on the feasibility, and if feasible, implementation of a requirement for the provision of backup power for all towers and antennas.
Clearing Roads for Emergency Vehicles
In the aftermath of last year’s storms, fallen trees, limbs, and downed wire blocked passage on many roads across the state. This became life-threatening when police, fire, and ambulance vehicles could not reach people in need of assistance. Senate Bill 23 will require the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), in conjunction with the utilities, DOT, DESPP, and an association of municipalities to develop procedures to expedite the process of road-clearing for public safety personnel.
Food Spoilage Program
PURA must also study and create a mechanism through which electric distribution companies would reimburse residential customers for spoilage of food or refrigerated medicine after long power outages. The General Assembly will receive recommendations on any legislation necessary to create the program.
The bill now proceeds to the floor of the House of Representatives.