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Selectmen: CL&P Needs 'Unilateral' Power to Remove Dangerous Trees

During Thursday's Board of Selectmen meeting, CL&P officials answered the question that many Greenwich residents have been asking since the August 5-6 power outage: How did a single tree knock out power to the entire town?

After an August 5 storm caused an 85-foot tall black locust to fall onto a main transmission line, ultimately , Greenwich officials say they want the state to enact legislation that would allow to "unilaterally" that are deemed a threat to the power grid from private properties.

During Thursday's Board of Selectmen meeting, Connecticut Light & Power officials answered the question that many residents have been asking since the August 5-6 power outage: and result in the fourth major outage Greenwich has witnessed in the past two years?

Chris Swan, director of municipal relations and siting for CL&P parent Northeast Utilities, explained that when the storm came through on the evening of Sunday, Aug. 5, the black locust, which was located on a private property on Summit Road in Riverside, fell into the railroad right of way and onto one of two transmission lines that parallel the tracks.

"That tripped the circuit out at about 7:57 p.m.," he said, adding that the loss of that first main transmission line knocked out power to about 6,000 to 7,000 customers.

But in order to remove the tree, it was determined that the other 115,000 volt transmission line would have to be taken out of service, Swan said.

"The tree was too close to that second line and there was a safety issue… " he explained.

Despite efforts to reduce the load on the second line, it eventually started sagging, which Swan explained is a natural phenomenon when power lines are taxed. The following morning, as CL&P crews were about to make the repair, the second circuit tripped, knocking out power to the remainder of Greenwich and parts of Stamford.

By then, however, the power company had a crane in place to remove the black locust. It took several hours just to remove the tree, Swan said, and several more to restore power.

"When you you restore power, the distribution system has to be put back to normal in stages," he said. "It's a manual process — it's not like you sit there a press buttons — it has to be done with field forces."

Swan said he was pleased with CL&P's response considering the challenges crews faced. He said by 3 p.m. both main circuits were restored and by 6 p.m. power had been restored to about 80 percent of the town. Power was fully restored by 8 p.m., he said.

Focused on the source of the problem, First Selectman Peter Tesei wanted to know if there was a mechanism "to compel property owners who have vegetation that could impact a major transmission line" to cut that vegetation back.

"To tell you the truth there is none," Swan replied, adding that CL&P doesn't have the right to go onto private property and remove trees without owner permission.

The selectmen and CL&P officials agreed that such a mechanism should be in place for situations where property owners are uncooperative or unresponsive. Selectman David Theis asked Swan if the utility would be willing to help draft language which could be presented to state lawmakers to that effect.

"Could you guys work with us in drafting some language that we could get in front of our state representatives and state senators, that they could move forward in Hartford, in order to get something that facilitates a more 'unilateral' approach to this problem?" Theis asked, adding that in his opinion such legislation should "sail through" the legislative process "for the obvious reasons."

Swan said CL&P would be happy to help draft the language. He said the utility is already proactive about contacting property owners regarding the removal of dangerous trees along right of ways. He said the company currently has about a 90 percent success rate in getting permission to remove dangerous trees from private properties.

"We do this all the time along our right of ways — we know many of those property owners and we have relationships with them," he explained. "And when we see trees that need to be taken down we deal with them."

However, "it only takes one" tree to take out a major power line, Swan said.

"So the issue becomes, where do you have rights so you can unilaterally say 'that tree's a problem, I've got to remove it,'" he said.

Swan said in the two major storms last fall, CL&P had 11 incidents where trees fell on transmission lines in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

"We've known for quite some time now that we need to be more aggressive about trimming trees outside of the right away," he said. "That's why we recently stepped up our vegetation management — in some cases doubling the budget" to remove trees.

"Getting to the right-of-way trees requires everyone working collaboratively -- property owners, the state, the railroad, and the towns," he added.

CL&P officials also updated the selectmen on planned and ongoing infrastructure projects that will help make the grid more reliable. This included a lengthy discussion on the merits and de-merits of burying transmission lines underground.

Selectman Drew Marzullo said he wanted some reassurance that CL&P's response to storm-related outages would improve moving forward.

"Is this going to happen again?" Marzullo asked, in reference to the Aug. 6 incident.

"We hope not," Swan said. "I certainly hope we can work through some of this enabling legislation… so we can identify some of these danger trees and remove them… "

Marzullo also said he wanted to see CL&P improve its communication with customers and municipalities during storm events and outages.

"I think it would help that when people call for an update, that the updates are made more accurately," he said. "I know you can't pinpoint to the hour — but if you could just do a better job of  communicating with the public, I think that would go a long way."

Todd Blosser, director of operations for CL&P's southern division and a town resident, said it can take days just for the power company to determine the extent of the damage following a storm, simply because roadways are blocked and crews cannot easily assess the damage. He said CL&P prefers not to make estimates "until we know the extent of the damage."

Marzullo asked if CL&P is ready for a Category 1 hurricane.

"I can say we're as prepared as we've ever been," Swan said. "We've done internal drills, we've gone through extensive training, and we've invested in new tools to help us manage storms."

However Swan said if Greenwich is hit with a Category 1 storm, residents should still be prepared for a potentially lengthy outage.

"I just want to clarify, if we get hit with a Category 1 hurricane — as we did last fall — there's no way we will be able to limit it to a two day event," he said. "It could be a seven day event — because of the sheer magnitude of it."

He added that when CL&P says it has improved its preparedness, "that means a reduction in the total number of days" that residents would be without power.

Last Wednesday the state’s Vegetation Management Task Force recommended that Connecticut spend to avoid the kind of widespread destruction and power outages wrought by last year's storms.

The special task force says the state should set aside $33.8 million to deal with managing roadside trees and other growth near power lines, according to a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection press release.

David Moyer September 11, 2012 at 12:25 PM
Of course, they never say whether the black locust was a problem tree they had identified and contacted the owner about removing. This is outrageous. To give the utility that has been shafting Greenwich for years ANY more power than they already have (no pun intended), much less UNILATERAL power, is a terrible idea. Peter is off the reservation on this one.
david motay September 11, 2012 at 08:51 PM
I stand with Peter on this one, CLP needs unilateral power to protect there power lines from problematic trees. The town and state are moving in the right direction and must continue to address this issue !
David Moyer September 12, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Sorry, in a democracy, the people should have the final say, not a corporation. Anfd the corporation certainly shouldn't be drafting legislation.
Richard Legere September 12, 2012 at 07:25 PM
CL&P's solution is the equivalent of blaming your tires when your car won't start. When one fallen tree in the right place can take down thousands of homes and small businesses, this is a bizarre and unrealistic solution. The real problem is that CL&P's antiquated distribution system is like a mainframe computer, when one part stops the whole system shuts down. And yet they still continue to invest what is tantamount to OUR MONEY in a system that best suits NU and CL&P's business model and not the public need for cost-effective and reliable power. Problem is, this will continue to happen unless competition is allowed that breaks the utility monopoly and we finally get solutions such as microgrids. That way our energy is less fragile, much more reliable and probably at a lower cost. Wait until the next big storm, it will be deja vu all over again and the NU and CL&P "blame everyone but us" finger pointing will start anew. Re: the legislation CL&P wants, let's just throw away our legal rights to be secure and enjoy our home and property when it comes to corporate profit. I would expect strong legal challenges.

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