Letter: New Storm Legislation Brings a Warning

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WILTON, Conn. - The follwoing is a letter from State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, about the recent proposed storm legislation.

Last fall’s monumental storms affected almost everyone in Connecticut. People were inconvenienced, impatient, and angry. The ill, elderly, and disabled were exposed to significant risks. We were shocked at how long it took to restore service, and how hard it was to get answers.

First responders and town organizations rose to the occasion, but they were stretched to their limits. Schools were closed for days on end. The situation got old very fast. No one wanted to go through the same thing again, ever.

Not surprisingly, there was an initial clamor for action. Several of us called for public hearings, and there were many, at both the state and municipal levels. State agencies, public utilities, and the governor commissioned or conducted studies. Reports were released.

Legislation was drafted early in the 2012 session. And then – nothing happened. The subject disappeared from the radar screen as other issues like Sunday sales, medical marijuana, the death penalty, and election-day voter registration took center stage. Had the storms and their aftermath become just a tempest in a teapot?

Fortunately, there is good news to report. The Energy and Technology Committee used the time to produce a bipartisan bill that addresses most of the issues raised by the various hearings and studies.

While frustration has mounted over the General Assembly’s lack of progress in the critical areas of education reform and the budget, SB 23 establishes a comprehensive framework for improvement and has been well received by both sides of the political aisle.

Interestingly, while Connecticut has long been required by law to have a civil preparedness plan, it has not included utilities. The bill integrates them into the plan for the first time. Among the bill’s provisions:

  • The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) must review the emergency preparedness of each electric and gas utility and phone company. The review covers damage and outage estimate procedures, restoration management, planning for vulnerable customers, communications with state and local officials and customers, mutual aid agreements, infrastructure adequacy, coordination with other utilities, and tree trimming policies.
  • PURA must establish minimum performance standards for utilities’ preparation and restoration practices. These will include minimum staffing and equipment levels, communications, mutual aid agreements, tree trimming and removal, and call center and internet operations. PURA will set restoration targets for outages that affect 10%, 30%, 50%, and 70% of each utility’s customers.
  • Utilities must submit to PURA their plans for implementing the performance standards. They must also submit annual emergency response plans, along with reports on compliance with the standards.
  • PURA may issue civil penalties for noncompliance with standards. Electric or gas companies may be fined up to 2.5% of their annual distribution revenue. The maximum for phone companies is $20 million. Utilities may not recover fines from ratepayers.
  • Land line and cellular phone companies must report annually on their backup power capabilities.
  • The Department of Transportation (DOT) and municipalities must notify PURA of road work plans so it can evaluate opportunities for installing or improving utility lines.
  • The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) must establish a $15 million micro-grid pilot program to award grants or loans to support local distributed energy generation without a connection to the main grid for critical facilities like hospitals, police and fire stations, and shelters. Municipalities of all sizes will be chosen for the pilot.
  • Several government agencies must work together with utilities and towns to establish procedures to expedite road-clearing during emergencies.
  • Under certain conditions, phone companies must provide bill credits to customers for service outages that last more than 24 hours.
  • PURA must study the feasibility of reimbursing customers for food and medication spoilage.

While most of the bill’s provisions entail reporting as opposed to immediate action, they assign clear roles and responsibilities, and most initial reporting deadlines fall within the coming year. If there is a need for additional legislation, it should be clear by the start of the 2013 session. There is a precise roadmap, complete with timing, for improving the state’s emergency preparedness and response.

Many questions arose last year about creating municipal utilities, because towns with their own electric utilities suffered much less than others after the storms. Another bill, HB 5543, requires PURA to identify procedures and legislative changes necessary for towns interested in creating or expanding municipal utilities.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions about this issue and any others that interest you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at (860) 240-8700 or gail.lavielle@cga.ct.gov. I am always happy to hear from you.

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