HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut utilities would face penalties for taking too long to fix power outages during emergencies under legislation that Senate Democrats proposed Wednesday.
The proposal also requires more tree-trimming to avoid power line damage and small power grids to allow hospitals, police stations, grocery stores and other critical facilities to operate during emergencies.
Senate leaders announced their proposal Wednesday in response to widespread and lengthy power outages following the remnants of Hurricane Irene in late August and the October snow storm.
"We know folks in Connecticut want not only accountability, but energy security," Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams said at a news conference.
Power was out for as long as 11 days in late October and early November, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of utility customers and forcing businesses to shut, he said.
"We've learned that, in talking to experts, that if we had an enhanced tree trimming program in place prior to these storms that fully twenty percent of the power outages that we experienced...would have been prevented," said Sen. John Fonfara.
The legislation would require the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to develop utility performance standards during emergencies, storms and natural disasters. Standards would address planning, hazard mitigation, staffing and equipment.
PURA would establish penalties that are yet to be determined.
Mitch Gross, spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power, said the state's largest utility, which serves more than 1.2 million customers, looks forward to working with the state on legislation. He said CL&P has met with regional councils of government about how to improve service, assigned town liaisons to all 149 communities CL&P serves and proposed more tree-trimming and several projects to improve wires, poles and other equipment to withstand future storms.
A spokesman for United Illuminating did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposes adding $2 million for tree-trimming, spending $500,000 on emergency training and $5 million in bond funds for a pilot program to encourage the development of a micro-electric grid.
Senate Democrats would increase that to $300 million in bonds and other funding over 10 years for 150 sites where microgrids would operate, keeping police stations, gas stations, nursing homes and other key facilities operating during emergencies. Some of the money could be returned in the form of electricity generated by the microgrids and sold to a utility.
"Like fuel cells, like solar...and having a microgrid where we keep the lights on," Williams said.
The Hospital for Special Care in New Britain is a perfect example of a likely location for a microgrid. It has the largest ventilator unit in the state, more than 100 people depending on the breathing machines to keep them alive everyday. The hospital was without power for five days and Dr. Paul Scalise says if their generator had failed during that time, "unfortunately, we would have had a medical catastrophe, we would have had many people succumb."
To make matters worse on the third day of the power outage they discovered they were not on CL&P's Emergency Restoration list, and they say keeping the lights on is more than just convenience.
"It sounds mundane," Williams said, "but it's a matter of life and death."
State lawmakers Wednesday pledged to move forward with a plan to establish microgrids around the state.
For The Hospital of Special Care that would mean solar panels or a fuel cell site that could pay for itself over time by selling power back to CL&P, but be ready to keep the lights and the ventilator machines on at all times.
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