For many Connecticut workers, a one-day power outage would mean more time to spend with the kids or the opportunity to read that novel. But for business owners, the impact would be quite different.

A full day without power would be “serious,” according to 69 percent of Connecticut businesses that responded to a 2002 survey from the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. And a number of businesses – 21 percent – said a one-day power outage would be “catastrophic.”

Power regulation agencies and businesses have long been concerned about the power grid in southwestern Connecticut. The antiquated system can no longer reliably handle the electricity needs of the region and a series of patches to keep the system working is not a long-term solution, said Erin O’Brien of ISO New England, the not-for-profit organization that is responsible for the reliable operation of the region’s power system.

“Every day, southwestern Connecticut is operating on the edge,” she said.

The short-term solutions – emergency generation equipment and patches – are secured until 2007, so a major power outage is not imminent. But those solutions won’t last forever, O’Brien said.

A plan to remedy the situation has met with controversy and technical problems. Residents and municipal leaders in communities from Milford to Middletown are concerned about possible health concerns from a proposed power line upgrade. The proposed upgrade, which is supposed to run above ground from Middletown to Milford and underground from Milford to Norwalk, is meant to give the power grid in southwestern Connecticut the ability to supply reliable power to the entire region.

There are also technical problems with the underground portion of the line. A study last summer found that if the line were installed as proposed, it would not meet necessary reliability standards.

An ‘Important’ Issue

The issues are complex and controversial, but federal, regional and state agencies tried to make sense of them at a recent forum in Hartford.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission held the conference Oct. 13 to present the facts of the upgrade, according to FERC Director Bryan Lee.

The upgrade of the power lines has become increasingly political over the last several years, with state politicians passing a bill that could require buffer zones around high-voltage lines. FERC wanted to present the facts of the situation, Lee said.

Southwestern Connecticut hasn’t sufficiently invested in its power infrastructure, Lee said in a later interview.

“Southwestern Connecticut is an area that has insufficient … capacity,” he said.

The root of the problem is that the region is served by power lines that aren’t capable of bringing in enough power from other sources, Lee said. That makes the area reliant on old, inefficient power generation plants. The owners of those plants want to close them down but can’t, because without them the weaknesses of the power grid in southwestern Connecticut could affect all of New England, Lee said.

The problem has been on ISO’s short list of needs to address for years, O’Brien said.

“Southwestern Connecticut has long been ISO New England’s No. 1 concern,” she said. “The energy can’t flow to where it’s needed.”

Without full reliability, ISO has had to buy emergency equipment and the patches that have been made to the system will not last forever, O’Brien said.

“The transmission system is at its limit,” she said.

Cost is one of the dominant issues for businesses. Connecticut pays $100 million a year in congestion costs, said Rob Earley of the CBIA. That cost trickles down to the customer.

“Each year we delay, our reliability problems continue to grow and these costs continue to mount,” he said.

The power issues are a major concern for the business community, Earley said. Reliability and the need to keep costs down are so important that the CBIA took the unprecedented step of filing to become a party in the upgrade hearings before the Connecticut Siting Council. The council approves or denies applications by power companies United Illuminating Co. and The Connecticut Light and Power Co. to upgrade the line.

“It is an important economic issue for southwestern Connecticut,” Earley said.

A reliable energy supply is vital to any healthy economy, he said. One speaker at last week’s forum told attendees that Connecticut’s power grid resembles a Third World country’s, Earley said. Another aspect to the current dilemma is that Connecticut residents and businesses can’t access cheaper power in times of tight supply, he said.

It is incumbent upon state politicians to make the upgrade happen after years of wrangling over the issue, Earley said.

The FERC hopes its forum can help bring out the scientific facts behind the necessary upgrade, Lee said. Similar forums in other parts of the country have been successful, he said.

“Invariably, consensus – to some degree or another – follows,” he said.

The controversy up until now has been the “collision of politics and engineering,” Earley said. The power companies who are proposing the upgrade are trying to accommodate everyone, but controversy has arisen that has further slowed the already ponderous process.

“Engineering isn’t a political problem,” Earley said.

The proposal is currently stalled in the Connecticut Siting Council as a team of experts tries to find technology that will allow 24 miles of the lines to be buried in heavily populated Fairfield County. They are due to report back to the council in December.

As the process of reviewing the proposal for the upgrade moves forward through the Siting Council, FERC will have to decide who will pay for the project. Because it will benefit all of New England – where the power grid is tightly interconnected and improvements in southwestern Connecticut could strengthen the entire region’s ability to receive power from other places – much of the cost likely will be shared among the six states.

But one costly aspect of the project will only benefit southwestern Connecticut. If 24 miles of the line is buried in Fairfield County as planned, that would add to the cost of the project, while residents of Fairfield County would be the only ones to benefit.

In that case, the extra cost would likely be shouldered by Connecticut alone, O’Brien said.