House approves tougher utility oversight legislation
Want more politics? For the latest in Connecticut and beyond, sign up for our CTPolitics newsletter , written by the Hearst CT political team.
HARTFORD — Connecticut’s electric utilities, lambasted by consumers who sweated through a weeklong power outage in August heat that spoiled food and medicine, would have to meet a wide-ranging criteria of performance benchmarks, including customer satisfaction, under legislation that the House of Representatives approved late Wednesday night.
The bill passed 136-4 after a three-and-a-half-hour debate, and moves to the Senate on Thursday.
Lawmakers said they rewrote the bill after threats from the electric monopolies that Eversource customers would pay $50 extra per month and United Illuminating would charge $18 more. It would also give the state Public Utility Regulatory Authority, which has two active probes into the August response, longer periods of time to investigate proposals for rate increases.
The legislation would allow PURA to issue fines if 10 percent of utility customers were without power for 48 hours. Compensation of up to $250 would go to consumers in the event of outages that extend to 96 hours. Neither penalty would be recoverable through rates, said Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, co-chairman of the legislative Energy & Technology Committee.
In addition to the goals and oversight is the assurance of better communications, which seemed to break down massively throughout the state, with local officials complaining that utilities did not coordinate responses with local public works crews that confronted thousands of downed trees and deadly live wires.
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, said while United Illuminating correctly predicted the severity of the storm, the communication with local officials was nonexistent. “The issue was there was absolutely no communication,” she said. “It was outrageous.”
“This bill will require PURA to adopt a framework for implementing performance-based regulations of our electric distribution companies,” Arconti said. “Today we are taking control and establishing standards and metrics to measure utility performance on various objectives, such as safety, reliability, equity, customer satisfaction, municipal engagement and resilience. It is simply unacceptable that our electric utilities continue to under-perform and under-deliver for our citizens when they need them the most: before, during and active major storms.”
“The bill is a strong consumer-friendly bill,” said Rep. Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven, ranking member of the committee, who urged support for the bill, called the Take Back Our Grid Act.
Under the bill, residential customers could receive $25 account credits for each day that a service outage occurs for more than 96 consecutive hours after an emergency, and up to $250 for lost food and medication.
After several extreme weather events in 2011, lawmakers forced utilities to engage in infrastructure hardening and tree clearance. But amid rate hikes that left the state with some of the highest monthly costs in the country, UI and Eversource drifted away from storm preparation, lawmakers said.
“Simultaneously, utilities consistently increased their rates and profits and created roadblocks for implementing key public policies,” Arconti said. “It is time to give our regulators the power and direction to take on these monopolies and ensure that positive customer outcomes are driving their performance and not utilities’ bottom line.”
The ultimate goal is to force the utilities to prioritize customer value, he said.
Ferraro and Arconti said that months of negotiations with regulators, consumer representatives and the utilities, with the goal of not increasing rate any further, resulted in the bill.
“We were confronted with the perfect storm, where many people and families were suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, sequestering at home, some of them without jobs, then the utility companies raised the rates on consumers,” Ferraro said. “It was over-bearing and too difficult for them and then we got his with storm Isaias.”
“This is a step,” said Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, whose district has three different electric utilities with varying responses to the August storm. “The impact of this legislation we probably won’t feel for a year or two.” He warned that it is a complicated issue. “There are only so many problems we can fix.”
Hours before the debate on increasing accountability, Gov. Ned Lamont submitted a request for a presidential disaster declaration in all eight Connecticut counties for damage from Isaias in early August.
“Tropical Storm Isaias came through Connecticut fast and created an impact that is taking weeks to repair,” Lamont said in a written statement. “If approved, this federal declaration will allow many municipalities in our state to become eligible for much-needed cost reimbursements as they continue to fix damaged infrastructure from the storm.”
The high winds and heavy rain led to more than 800,000 customer power outages, some of which extended for a week. Roads were blocked and hundreds of utility poles and transformers were damaged.
If Connecticut wins the designation, towns, cities and tribal nations would be allowed to apply for reimbursements totaling 75 percent of their costs through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The governor’s request was supported by the state’s congressional delegation.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @KenDixonCT