The Connecticut Senate passed a bill Thursday aimed at creating a performance-based system for utilities that would hold the companies accountable, determine rates, and help protect customers during long-term outages.
The House of Representatives passed the bipartisan proposal late Wednesday on a 136-4 vote. It was one of nearly a dozen disparate bills, including legislation to give local election officials more time to begin processing absentee ballots, that cleared the House. The Senate was expected to pass the same bills on Thursday during the General Assembly’s second special legislative session to be held during the coronavirus pandemic with most senators listening to the debate in their offices.
The bill, HB7006, is known as the Take Back Our Grid Act.
While the company is not named in the bill, lawmakers made it clear much of it was targeted at Eversource. The company has been under scrutiny after backlash from a steep rate increase and a response during Tropical Storm Isaias that many felt was inadequate.
During Wednesday’s debate, both Democratic and Republican legislators relayed their constituents’ frustration with Eversource, the state’s largest electric distribution company, for its response to the storm, which came on the heels of a controversial rate increase that’s now being investigated by regulators. They spoke of elderly constituents without water because they had no electricity and rely on well water, and municipal officials and residents who had communication difficulties with Eversource about restoration efforts.
“People wanted to know. They needed to be able to make plans, to have an idea. ‘Are my lights going to come back on in 24 hours, 48 hours or two weeks from now? I just need an idea,’” said Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington. “And they weren’t able to get that information.”
Eversource CEO Jim Judge told state legislators in August that he understood many customers were frustrated by the company’s response and lengthy outages, especially given the pandemic, but insisted the company was well-prepared for the storm. He said Eversource has made numerous improvements over the years that have resulted in improved service and reliability.
Besides a new performance-based system for determining rates, financial incentives and penalties for electric distribution companies, the legislation would also require customers to be credited $25 a day and reimbursed $250 in compensation for spoiled food and medication during lengthy outages of 96 consecutive hours after an emergency. That would have amounted to $19 million for the 255,000 customers left without power after four days, lawmakers said.
Some lawmakers voiced concerns about unintended consequences, like further driving up electric rates, and added that the bill feels hastily done.
In a statement issued after the vote, Eversource said:
"We appreciate and understand the Energy and Technology Committee’s and legislative leaders’ concerns following Tropical Storm Isaias. The legislation passed tonight includes performance-based regulation which we believe will benefit our customers. This new approach will hold us accountable if we fall short in meeting certain standards, and will acknowledge when we exceed the standards, which we believe will result in better service for our customers. The legislation also includes an important provision that affirms PURA’s ability to adopt storm performance standards based on industry best practices."
The bill will now go to the governor, who has indicated his support.