To the editor:
Regarding your editorial of Monday, Feb. 27 (For big utilities, every storm now a catastrophe"), I would like to outline how the Legislature is addressing valid concerns about utility companies when it comes to their preparation for and response to outages and emergency events like Tropical Storm Irene and the Halloween snowstorm.
After the ice storm of 2008, which caused outages for several days in Unitil's service territory, we put tools in place to hold electric companies accountable for any inadequate power restoration efforts. In 2008, the Legislature passed a law that, among other things, gave the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) authority to investigate and penalize utility companies that fail to live up to their Emergency Response Plans (ERPs) in responding to large storms.
This law mandates that utilities file ERPs with the DPU for its approval, and allows DPU to issue penalties of up to $20 million against any utility that fails to adhere to that plan. These penalties cannot be passed on to ratepayers. This law is now being used as a model for other states, including Connecticut, seeking to strengthen their oversight of electric companies during emergencies.
With these tools, DPU has opened investigations on National Grid, NStar and Western Mass Electric following Tropical Storm Irene and the Halloween snowstorm. So far, DPU has conducted 16 public hearings seeking feedback about these companies' storm-response efforts. The investigation is ongoing. We have given DPU a big stick to penalize utilities whose restoration efforts and communication systems failed.
While I will leave the final determination on the preparedness or response of utilities to DPU, which is holding its evidentiary hearings, both Irene and the Halloween snowstorm were major, historic storms. In fact, while attending a solar power conference in New York City, Tropical Storm Irene hit and I was evacuated from the city. In anticipation, the NYC subway was shut down for the first time in its history. As for the Halloween snowstorm, it too was unprecedented in terms of how much snow fell with leaves still on the trees. In hindsight, it may be the worst snowstorm we experience this winter.
While appreciating the magnitude of these storms, this cannot serve as an excuse for any inadequate preparation or response by utilities. Short-term outages during emergency events may be unavoidable, but ratepayers and public-safety officials must be able to effectively communicate with electric companies and avoid lengthy periods of time without power.
Earlier this month, my committee released legislation that imposes new requirements on electric companies to better prepare and communicate with customers. It also would refund any penalty collected by DPU directly to affected ratepayers. The Senate has already passed this bill unanimously, and I expect the House will also support it this term.
Finally, your editorial discussed how municipal lighting plants did a better job responding to these recent storms than the larger, investor-owned utilities. No municipality has formed its own lighting plant since the 1920s, as it is a complex and costly process.
However, earlier this session, my committee also reported favorably a bill that would make it easier for cities or towns to form municipal lighting plants should they choose to do so. I believe giving cities and towns this local option will provide electric companies added incentive to provide quality service to customers.
Indeed, the Legislature has been very active in holding electric companies responsible for their storm and emergency response efforts, especially when they fail to live up to acceptable standards. I look forward to the outcome of the ongoing investigations at DPU, and we will continue to work hard on pending legislation that protects our constituents and improves the communication and preparation of utility companies.
John D. Keenan
7th Essex District
Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy