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Letter to Chairman Bingaman and Ranking Member Murkowski of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Letter

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Following a series of major electric outages that have left millions of New Englanders without power in recent years, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators from the region led by Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) today called for a hearing to review our nation's electric grid reliability standards. In a letter to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Senators highlighted the fact that power outages not only pose a threat to public safety, but also to local businesses and economies.

As an example, the Senators pointed to last month's New England snowstorm that left more than 2 million utility customers without power, including 315,000 in New Hampshire, 830,000 in Connecticut, and 672,000 in Massachusetts.

"Power outages can have significant consequences, even life-threatening ones when they come during the brutal cold of winter. Families can be forced out of their homes and businesses forced to close unexpectedly," said Shaheen, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Unfortunately, over the past two years, significant and sustained outages have been occurring across New England with unacceptable regularity. Our electric grid reliability standards are designed to protect the welfare of the American people and the American economy, and it's time that we review their effectiveness and adequacy.

"This hearing can be highly significant, not only in fact finding but change making," said Blumenthal. "An oversight hearing should enable us to explore and expose defects in utility preparation and response, and empower reforms in policies and practices at every level. The prolonged power outages from this past October's storm had real and pernicious consequences for the economy, health, and safety of Connecticut residents. An oversight hearing is essential to upgrade our reliability standards as well as improve Mutual Aid Agreements, so that states can protect against similar catastrophes."

"Massachusetts was walloped by October's Nor'easter that left hundreds of thousands of people without power in the face of snow, winds, and bitter temperatures," said U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA). "When you endure blackouts that come storm after storm, it's obvious there's a fundamental problem that needs to be fixed, pronto. The problem isn't the utility workers who are out there risking injury in the brutal weather trying to get things fixed, the problem is the system. We need answers and a game plan to prevent this from happening over and over again. It starts by making sure our electricity grid is reliable."

"This year, Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm caused hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents to lose power for days or weeks, often with little information about when the lights would turn back on," said U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA). "I share their frustration and, as we have learned, a reliable power grid is not just critical to our economy, but a matter of life and death. I hope the Committee will hold this oversight hearing to reveal the extent of our energy reliability issues, and help our nation be better prepared for major disruptions to our power supply."

The full text of the letter is below.

December 13, 2011

The Honorable Jeff Bingaman
Chairman
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
304 Dirksen Office Building
Washington, D.C 20510

The Honorable Lisa Murkowski
Ranking Member
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
304 Dirksen Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Chairman Bingaman and Ranking Member Murkowski:

We write on behalf of the millions of New England consumers who depend on a reliable electric power system for their safety, economic stability, and quality of life.

Our concern stems from recent storms and the appearance of a regional downward trend in electric reliability. As you may know, a New England snowstorm last month left more than two million utility customers without power, including 315,000 in New Hampshire, 830,000 in Connecticut, and 672,000 in Massachusetts. In New Hampshire alone, the storm caused the loss of 91 main circuits and three 115 kv lines for Public Service of New Hampshire, the largest number in the company's history. In Connecticut, the storm caused the outage of 29 115 kv lines and three 345 kv lines. In addition to last month's snowstorm, hundreds of thousands of customers have been without power in our states at various points over the past two years following extreme weather events such as Hurricane Irene.

These electric outages, some lasting as long as a week for some customers, have real consequences. In our northern states, a lack of power for home heating can become life threatening during winter months. Downed power lines can threaten public safety. Furthermore, businesses across the region are unexpectedly forced to close their doors. As you may know, a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that the national cost of power interruptions is about $80 billion annually. We cannot afford unplanned and prolonged business closures in a time of economic recovery.

One issue brought to light in the most recent snowstorm was the inadequacy of utility Mutual Assistance Groups (MAGs). MAG programs exist to support utilities in contracting for additional line and repair crews when in-house manpower proves insufficient in the wake of a major outage. They are important as a network of regional utility-to-utility cooperatives to deliver the necessary crews in the aftermath of significant storms. In the most recent storm experienced by our states, shortcomings on the part of the MAG system contributed to the unusually slow pace of recovery in several of the hardest hit states. In the face of another disaster of this scale, we are concerned that the MAG system may prove similarly deficient in ensuring that our constituents receive needed assistance to clear roads, repair distribution networks, and repower transmission equipment.

The health and welfare of the American people and the needs of our economy demand a reliable electric power system. To that end, we respectfully ask that the Committee hold an oversight hearing to review the adequacy of our nation's reliability standards as soon as possible. We think it is timely and prudent to determine the effectiveness of these standards in protecting consumers and businesses so that we can begin the process of improving electric reliability in our communities.

We stand ready to work with the Committee to address an issue of great importance to improving the safety, economy, and quality of life of the region that we represent. Thank you for your consideration of our request.

Sincerely,

Jeanne Shaheen
United States Senator

Richard Blumenthal
United States Senator

John Kerry
United States Senator

Scott Brown
United States Senator


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