Editorial / Calculate the cost of power-system reform
Published 5:16 pm, Thursday, January 19, 2012
A task force that studied how the state responded to Tropical Storm Irene in late August and the freak October snowstorm issued its report to the governor earlier this month.
In its 39-page report, the Two Storm Panel made 82 recommendations.
And the popular belief in Fairfield was that all 82 should have been variations of "restore power faster."
That may be a stretch. But 27 of the 82 recommendations -- nearly one in three -- specifically dealt with public utilities. And well they should have.
Restoration of electric power after Irene took as long as seven days in Fairfield -- nine days in other places. After the snowstorm, some parts of northern Connecticut were without power for 12 days.
In Fairfield, Irene knocked out power to 75 percent of town's electric customers, including half of the schools. United Illuminating Co. was roundly lambasted by public officials and customers alike for its pitiful performance in fumbling to restore power.
The much larger Connecticut Light & Power bore the greatest public ire of state officials -- but only because it is so much larger than UI.
Among the panel's power-related recommendations were:
More aggressive tree trimming
Selective burying of power lines
Developing performance standards for power restoration after storms and penalizing utilities that fail to meet them
Improving utility staffing levels and planning of worst-case scenarios
Non-utility recommendations ranged from upgrading building codes because of rising sea levels to shelter operations to various communications improvements.
All were made to better prepare for "the next big storm."
The electric-power recommendations all make sense, but nobody has put a price tag on any of them. That must be the state's and the utilities' priority. The sooner it is determined what measures are practical -- yes, affordability is a huge factor-- the sooner reform can begin. It does little good to pine for what is too expensive.
Yet cost estimates surely will spur debate about what's affordable and what's not.
Costs that a UI customer in Southport or Greenfield Hill may deem reasonable to improve reliability could be called outrageous in Grasmere or Bridgeport. Since power-delivery costs are set for an entire service area -- not by the town or the neighborhood -- any initiatives would be one-price-fits-all.
CL&P has told state officials that -- with a rate hike -- it could reduce outages by as much as 40 percent with a decade-long program of tree trimming and hardening its infrastructure.
While UI has offered no such scenario, one has to take CL&P's view with a grain of salt. In its disaster plan, that company's "worst-case scenario" was 100,000 customers without power. The realities of both Irene and the snowstorm were eight times that.
Because of its sheer size, CL&P will draw most of the state's attention, with similar remedies likely to be prescribed for UI. But complicating the larger picture is the fact that CL&P as we know it might not even exist in six months. Its parent company, Northeast Utilities, has agreed to be acquired by Massachusetts-based NStar, so an entirely different group of people could be in charge by the time enough information is gathered to act on it.
But costing out the recommendations must begin.
The other great unknown: What will the next big storm be?
Irene and the Nor'easter each knocked out power to more than 800,000 customers, and together they caused an estimated $1 billion in damage. But according to the Two Storm Panel report, we're overdue for far worse.
The National Weather Service told the Two Storm Panel that Connecticut is overdue for a major hurricane.
Irene was reduced to a tropical storm by the time she hit Long Island Sound and is estimated to have downed less than 2 percent of the state's trees.
A major hurricane could down 70 percent of the state's trees, the report stated.
A hurricane similar to the one that struck Connecticut in 1938 would cause $54 billion in damage in Connecticut, the report said. Power restoration could take months.
Hurricane season begins in August. That's just seven months from now, so the state and the power companies should start crunching numbers.