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CL&P: Late Warnings and Widespread Damage Hampered Response

Tree trimming, equipment 'hardening' and improving communications with municipalities will be key to prevention and enhancing response, the utility said during a hearing in Hartford Tuesday.

Late warnings hampered Connecticut Light & Power’s ability to prepare in advance for the destruction caused by , and widespread damage to both transmission stations and service lines to homes complicated the response and delayed restoration, company officials said Tuesday morning.

Five CL&P administrators and four United Illuminating officials came before the “Two Storm Committee” created by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in the Legislative Offices Building in Hartford as the committee began its review of the preparedness and responses of each company during Irene and the recent storm.

With the storm response now behind them, CL&P Vice President of Transmission David Boguslawski and UI President and Chief Executive Officer James Torgeson said their companies are focused on self-assessment and prevention.

For both companies, the most effective way to prevent future events will be to improve infrastructure and focus on better tree-trimming measures, changing cycles from five years to four years or less, officials said.

Tree trimming is done year-round but needs to be more comprehensive, said Dana Louth, Vice President of Asset Strategy for Northeast Utilities. This includes removal of risk trees, clearing a “greater envelope,” or space, around the lines and removing a greater number of trees that could cause damage.

“We truly believe this is the first and most important step to prevention in a case like this and agree with UI in their belief that this is how we will prevent outages in the future,” Louth said.

Storm Preparation and Response

In the central and northern sections of Connecticut, which were hit hardest by the October storm, changing predictions and a small preparation window presented extensive challenges, said Michael Ahern, vice president of utility services for CL&P parent company Northeast Utilities.

“For Irene, we started with crews arriving from California and Arizona four days before the storm,” Ahern said. “We didn’t get the same warning with the Nor’easter.”

The Thursday before the Saturday storm, the company was preparing for a response to anywhere between two and four inches of snow, but those predictions began to intensify on Friday, Ahern said. The company began to prepare by calling all local contractors and even reaching out to available markets nearby, but resources were limited.

Damage from the storm also continued to mount for a 36-hour period, leading to more outages at its peak — there were 831,000 customers without power at one point — than during Hurricane Gloria and Hurricane Bob combined, said CL&P Vice President of Customer Solutions William Quinlan.

Boguslawski said the storm knocked out 44 transmission lines throughout New England, including 22 substations in Connecticut alone, which resulted in complete outages for nearly 170,000 people, not including other damages to individual delivery lines.

The damage led to more than $200 million in costs for CL&P and $25 million in costs for UI, officials said.

“We are working on our own self-assessment as to the lessons we could learn, but these were extraordinary events,” Bogulawski said. “We need to determine if extreme is a new norm we could be facing.”

Delays were also further impacted by the inability to gain services in a quick manner, CL&P officials said.

According to figures presented by CL&P, the unmet line-crew demands were at more than 2,350 during Irene but exceeded 5,380 during the October storm. Paired with the need for more extensive road clearance during the latest storm, the peak number of crews weren’t on the road until two days later than they had been during Irene, said CL&P Vice President of Customer Solutions William Quinlan.

At the peak of the response during Irene, which occurred on Day 7, CL&P had a total of 1,903 crews at work; 1,269 line crews, 534 tree crews and 100 service crews. It took until Day 9 to reach the peak of the response during the October snowstorm and the response was larger with a total 2,917 total crews, including 1,803 line crews and 862 tree crews.

Each crew consists of two team members and one truck.

Many of these crews could be seen with trucks lining up at one of more than 20 operations centers and countless staging areas throughout the state where trucks were prepared for service assignments as crews from out of state, some who traveled for several days, rested in order to prepare to provide assistance.

“On average, a crew is able to address two trouble spots per day,” said Robert Hybsch, Vice President of Customer Operations for CL&P. “Oftentimes, we would run into a major project need where we had to rebuild a portion of road. There were an unprecedented number of wire problems, including individual lines from the street to homes, and it took tremendous amount of time towards the end of storm to restore those customers during this event.”

Preparing for the Future

Tree trimming remains the key to the future, Boguslawski said, but there are several other aspects of the storm, including equipment hardening and communications during the assessment process, that could be improved to help both prevent outages and expedite response.

CL&P officials were complimentary of individual town responses and assessment during the storm, but said a better system must be implemented to translate that information and create a more thorough response plans for CL&P workers.

“We learned from this event that many of the 149 towns served are very sophisticated and timely in assessing damage within their borders,” Quinlan said. “The bottom line from my view is [that] more collaboration and true partnership with the municipalities we serve is the true key to being better prepared for future.”

Towns used different systems, he said, and although having a direct communications liaison proved beneficial in many communities, it was not effective in others.

Quinlan said that CL&P is already developing technology that would provide each town liaison with underlay maps they could share with town leaders. This technology, not yet implemented, will further empower liaisons to have constructive tools to share with town leaders.

CL&P will also need to take a hard look at equipment system and consider further upgrades to prevent damages in the first place, Boguslawski said.

Costs to Ratepayers

If the company moves forward with efforts to enhance the system, particularly as it relates to “hardening,” it could have an impact on rates but those costs remain unknown.

“Hardening” is the act of strengthening equipment and could consist of enhancing wire sizes and types, strengthening the more than 700,000 poles with cross arms and wire ties. It could also include replacing overhead conductors with underground equipment, but that is an expensive undertaking, Boguslawski said.

Two Storm Committee co-chairman Joe McGee requested a list of estimated costs for the undertaking and the potential long-term cost it could have on the ratepayers, a request that CL&P said they would be happy to provide.

“If the effect is that it could strengthen response and reduce outage from nine days or 11 days to five, they may be willing to pay that cost,” McGee said. “As a customer, we don’t know what it will be. Is it $50, $100 per year? Without that information, the customer doesn’t have an option to make that choice.”

In the meantime, ratepayers should not see any impact to their electric bills, said Mitch Gross, spokesman for CL&P, in a phone conversation Tuesday afternoon. He said any increases that people may see in their bills should be the result of seasonal changes, including use of electric heat sources, additional lighting, etc., and is not due to storm responses.

Customers saw an 8 percent decrease in the bill in January for generation and could see an additional decrease of 5 to 10 percent in January 2012, he said.

“If the meter wasn’t running for a week, then they shouldn’t have been charged,” Gross said. “If anyone has questions about their bill, they should contact customer service immediately so that we can look into it.”

Dee Dee November 17, 2011 at 11:08 AM
The cost to strengthen response and reduce outages should be taken out of executive compensation FIRST - these guys paid themselves millions while deferring maintenance and not paying contractors! Frankly most of them should be fired! Where are our elected officials - they should be demanding heads roll and compensation controls - protecting the consumers from bearing the cost of poor management!
Bill November 17, 2011 at 03:12 PM
Dee Dee is right, but I will take the points made a step further. These men should be prosecuted for the pain, suffering and even deaths they caused through their flagrant and deliberate intention of cost cutting at the expense of their customers. A prosector needs to be appointed with subpoena power to get to the bottom of this unnecessary debacle.
Susanne Krivit November 17, 2011 at 04:09 PM
I would like to know what I can reasonably expect from CL&P during an outage, so I can take whatever action I need to in order to be better prepared for a long winter outage. I have underground wires running from above ground wires on a major route (58), and I was out for 9 days during Irene and 5 days during the recent October storm. If we have a serious storm in January, it will be a very serious issue for more of us to be withour power for any extended period. I am currently looking into buying a generator but before I spend thousands of dollars I would like to know what I can expect from CL&P. Should I be prepared for 5 days, for 7 days?
Linda Lewis November 17, 2011 at 07:56 PM
The Weather Channel was forcasting 6 to 10 inches of snow from storm Alfred on Oct. 24th. Where was CL&P getting their information? What prevented CL&P getting the peak # of crews organized before day 9 of the disaster?

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