How do you solve a problem like Irene?
A panel of experts gathered for a public discussion in Darien Tuesday on how the state's power grid could better withstand raging tropical storms . On the panel was an expert on forrestry, two experts from utilities, a state official and the head of the governor's Two Storm Panel that issued its own recommendations back in January (see attached report).
Suggestions that came up in the panel discussion, none of which were contradicted by other participants: More tree pruning is needed around utility wires, more burying of utility wires could be done, and local tree wardens could help enormously in the effort, especially if they were well-trained.
Also, local governments and utilities need to better coordinate their efforts just after storms, and the state's regulators could keep a better eye on utilities' policies on preparing for storms.
And it will all cost money.
But so would another storm like Irene or .
Joseph McGee, who served as co-chairman of the , said the question people need to ask themselves in considering improvements to the electricity system in the state is how much money to spend on a project like putting more wires underground compared with the risk of losing electricity for long periods of time after a storm.
"Do we risk having it [a pole and wire system] falling down and rebuilding it? Is that cheaper? Or do we spend the money—and it's billions of dollars—to underground the thing? And it's your choice. Will you accept the cost of doing it?"
The panel discussion, "Power Struggle: Balancing the Needs of People, Power & Trees," attracted about 100 people to the Auditorium.
Balancing the amount of tree cutting around utility wires
All participants agreed that homeowners and municipalities would have to make tough decisions on whether or not individual trees should be removed from areas near utility wires.
Particular trees can be beloved by individuals, families and even communities, said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connectcut Forest and Park Association.
He said trees can offer enormous benefits to communities in economic ways, like cutting the cost of air conditioning in the summer, and in emotional ways—like helping hospital patients to heal better when they have a view of trees.
Nevertheless, Hammerling—along with McGee, who is also vice president for public policy and programs at the Business Council of Fairfield County, and Jonathan Shrag, the deputy commissioner for energy at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection—said more limbs or entire trees would need to be removed from around utility wires.
Spending on trimming
Tree trimming budgets need to be increased around the state, McGee said. CL&P has a $24 million annual budget for tree trimming, he said. United Illuminating, which serves 17 cities and towns in south central Connecticut, has a $3.5 million annual budget.
The budget for the town of Greenwich is $1.1 to $1.3 million and for the town of Fairfield is 750,000. Those two towns make up a significant portion of the roughly $10 million spent by the state's local governments for trimming, he said.
The state itself increased its tree-trimming budget by an extra $2 million, up from $550,000, he said.
Additional money for projects like trimming more trees might be added to the electricity bills of customers, he said. Kenneth Bowes, vice president of energy delivery services for Connecticut Light & Power, said 30 percent of electricity bills in Connecticut already are used for various state-mandated projects, such as energy conservation and assistance to low-income customers.
The importance of tree wardens
One of the questions that local governments and individuals should be asking themselves is what species of tree should be appropriate near a utility pole, McGee said.
Tree wardens can help property owners, including local governments, with questions like that, along with questions about when some branches or entire trees should be cut down, said Jonathan Schrag, deputy commissioner for energy at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Hammerling said tree wardens with a minimal level of expertise would do a much better job of that. The state needs to mandate a certification program for them, he said, and it could do it by making mandatory a voluntary program now in place.
McGee said one of the more important recommendations in his committee's report was that towns and utilities need to coordinate their storm response efforts to quickly assess which streets utilities need to get cleared soonest in order to get crews to the spots where they're most needed.
"The local level is the brest place to get this [coordination] done, and the first selectmen and mayors need to work it out with the utility."
The report from the Two Storm Panel recommended a compact between chief executive officers of each town and city and the local utility. After the meeting, McGee said in an interview that closer coordination could cut back the time without power by as many as two days in the Irene or Halloween storms.
Bowes of CL&P said the utility had been able to work extremely smoothly with some towns in the state, but that the situation was a "mixed bag," varying with each community during the last two storms. He said the utility has pledged to have specific CL&P officials assigned to work with individual towns on coordination efforts.
A state emergency drill is expected in upcoming months that will allow towns and electric utilities to see how well they can coordinate responses, McGee said. But mayors and first selectmen can take the initiative and set up compacts with their electric utility for closer coordination in opening streets after storms, he said.
When he recently brought this up at a conference of elected officials, he said, "What surprised me was how many first selectmen and mayors said they didn't think they could do it on their own."
In the 1990s, the town of Concord, MA decided that it would charge customers a bit for a generations-long plan that would eventually put all of the town's electric utility lines underground.
A regular customer pays an extra $2.25 per month or so for the gradual "undergrounding" project conducted by the town-owned electric utility, Concord Light Plant.
It costs the town about $1 million per mile of underground lines, said Christopher Roy, engineering and operations manager at the utility. That rate is a good rule of thumb for the cost around the country, he said. The wires and equipment underground, which are meant to withstand submersion in water, are warranteed for about 40 years of service, he said.
McGee said some utilities have been able to bury lines at a cost of only $300,000, but he and Roy each said that soil conditions are important. Ledgerock underground is difficult for the utility in some spots of Concord, Roy said, but most of that town has sandy soil.
Bowes said CL&P has about 600 miles of utility lines underground, and about 17,000 miles of above-ground lines. (This infrastructure serves the utility's 1.2 million customers in 149 cities and towns, he said.)
Burying cables is a good policy in sensitive spots, such as the UConn Medical Center in Farmington, which has three "parallel" underground electricity lines because that facility is especially important during emergencies, Schrag said.
Particularly important buildings would be other good candidates for underground lines, he said, mentioning hospitals, buildings used as emergency shelters and police and fire stations. (In many cases, these buildings now use generators for electricity during emergencies.)
The panel discussion was organized by the Greenwich Tree Conservancy the Tree Conservancy of Darien, the Fairfield Forestry Committee, the Stamford Tree Foundation and chapters of the League of Women Voters in Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk and Stamford.
JoAnn Messina, executive director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, which originated the idea of a public panel discussion, said she thought the event went well.
"To me, it was the beginning of the conversation, and there's a lot more questions to be discussed and opinions to be shared," she said. "Clearly, there's a balance we have to reach" in removing trees near electricity lines.
For more information
- Report of the Two Storm Panel (PDF) (also see attached PDF)
- Connecticut Electricity Overview (see attached PDF)
- CTDEEP Ice and Snow Storm Response Guidance for Municipalities, Homeowners and Forest Landowners in Dealing with Tree Damage
- Office of Legislative Research Report: Municipal Financing of the Costs of Undergrounding of Utility Lines
Source for list: Brochure handed out at the Tuesday evening event.
Editor's note: This article originally was published at 6 a.m. The time stamp has been changed for layout purposes on the Home page of Darien Patch.