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Public Offers Support for Bills Increasing Government Oversight of Utilities

by Joseph Adinolfi | Mar 20, 2012 10:27pm
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Posted to: Energy, Environment, Weather

Joseph Adinolfi photo

Lee Hoffman, a member of Malloy’s Two Storm Panel

Nearly five months after the second of two storms left some without power for over a week, two bills that would increase government oversight of the state’s utilities received a public hearing Tuesday.

If passed, one would implement the governor’s recommendations and the other would strengthen the Public Utility Regulatory Authority’s oversight of electric and telephone companies by requiring an emergency response plan be formulated and approved by the agency every year.

The bill would also create a legal docket, allowing PURA to investigate utilities it believes are not adhering to their plans, and fine a utility up to $25 million if it is found to not be in compliance.

The legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee heard testimony Tuesday on both bills.

Those who testified generally agreed about the need for the reforms listed in both bills, but some lawmakers questioned whether the Senate bill went far enough.

Lee Hoffman, who served on Gov. Dannel P Malloy’s Two Storm Panel, said that many of the 82 recommendations made in the panel’s January report have already been or will be implemented by state agencies.

Sen. John Fonfara, D - Hartford, said the bill should include tougher standards for tree trimming because falling trees contributed greatly to the widespread outages.

“To not have the legislature speak to this, I think, misses the mark,” Fonfara said.

Hoffman argued that the two bills are meant to provide a framework for the state to hold utilities accountable and institute reforms, and that the details should best be left up to experts at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

Attempts to dictate a course of action through legislation would at best lengthen the process of developing effective regulations, and at worst obstruct it, Hoffman said.

John Murphy,  who testified on behalf of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, said he likes the House bill better than the Senate bill because it requires electric and telephone utilities to conduct reviews and report annually on their infrastructure and emergency response. It also requires wireless companies to provide back-up generation at cell phone towers in the state, a problem exposed during the two storms when cell users lost service.

But Gerard Keegan, director of state legislative affairs for the CTIA Wireless Association, said providing back-up generation at every cell site in the state poses many problems.

He said sometimes these cell sites are on top of church steeples or housed in closets where there is limited room to install back-up gas powered or battery generators. Adding weigh to the sites may pose weight and environmental problems, he said adding that it would force carriers to take a number of sites offline.

He concluded that the measure was “infeasible.”

Connecticut Light & Power didn’t offer any written testimony on the House bill, but it lent its support to the Senate bill and offered its regret for the outages that occurred last fall due to the unprecedented storms.

“This bill as proposed by Gov. Malloy and legislative leaders includes provisions that are reasonable and sound, and we support them,” Dana Louth, CL&P’s vice president of infrastructure hardening, told the committee. “The bill provides a direct, comprehensive and unambiguous course of action that the state expects of its utilities, state agencies, and municipalities during emergencies.”

Rep. Matthew Lesser, D - Middletown, said the Senate bill was vague about whether the state should begin the conversion to microgrids - a reworking of the power infrastructure that would place the source of electrical infrastructure within each community or region.

Converting to microgrids would be a costly and time consuming process, Hoffman said, and DEEP is already exploring the benefits as well as trying to work out the details of any major infrastructure changes.

The pilot program included in the bill should be conducted before the state makes any major decisions, Hoffman said, to ensure that the state spends taxpayer money prudently.

“[Microgrids] present some physical and engineering challenges, as well as a few legal challenges,” Hoffman said. “We need to balance the hardening of infrastructure with the cost of preparing for something that only happens every 10 to 20 years.”

“Right now, frankly, there are too many variables to figure that out,” Hoffman said.

Frank Cirillo, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420, said he supports a requirement that PURA mandate utilities’ minimum staffing levels for linemen, technicians, and engineers based on the number of customers served in a particular area.

The number of linemen employed by CL&P is inadequate, Cirillo said, even for handling minor ice storms and motor vehicle accidents.

Staffing levels at CL&P have been dramatically reduced since the 70s, while the customer base has grown, Cirillo said. In Western Connecticut, CL&P once employed 430 linemen. That number has fallen to 190, chiefly because positions vacated by retiring linemen are not being filled.

CL&P employs five linemen who are stationed in Falls Village, one of the company work centers, one of whom is out with a shoulder injury. These five men are responsible for Falls Village and six surrounding towns.

If lines are severed by a nighttime storm, or if a drunk driver crashes into a pole late at night, the linemen summoned to the scene who work through the night are taken off the day shift, leaving the surrounding area vulnerable, Cirillo said.

Cirillo stressed the importance of hiring local workers, as opposed to calling for reinforcements in the wake of a storm.

“Two of our linemen are worth five out of town linemen. We know the terrain, we know the circuits,” Cirillo said.

Over the past few years, the relationship between the IBEW and management at Northeast Utilities, the parent company of CL&P, has been difficult and in stark contrast to the relationship the Utility Workers Union of America Local has with United Illuminating, the second largest utility in the state.

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