Connecticut hopes to rise above its neighbors in storm readiness

Connecticut could separate itself from its neighbors in a big way this year as it considers setting several new standards to ensure reliable electric service.

The Two Storm Panel — which will release its assessment next week of Connecticut’s emergency readiness in the aftermath of August’s Tropical Storm Irene and the Oct. 29 nor’easter — completed its fact-finding hearings in mid-December with a new estimate on the cost of increasing electrical service reliability statewide.

But Joseph McGee, the panel’s chairman, said if legislators, utility regulators and consumers are to debate possibly paying more for service, “clear standards” must come with that.

“The real question is, what would that (added cost) get us?” McGee said Tuesday. “We need standards of reliability.” And though the chairman said that might sound like an obvious conclusion to reach, a new research report shows that Connecticut’s neighboring states haven’t done the same.

McGee declined to speculate whether that would involve minimum benchmarks for tree-trimming cycles, buffer zones around wires, maintenance budgets, or more complicated standards for measuring utilities’ efforts to cooperate with cities and towns. But he said everything has received a close look by the panel, which plans to give Gov. Dannel P. Malloy its report Jan. 9.

“There really is no state standard for tree-trimming” or for other measures needed to improve electrical service reliability. The actual practice “has been all over the place, and that is not unique to Connecticut.”

For example, Connecticut Light & Power Co. spent less on tree-trimming — after adjustments for inflation — and cleared fewer miles of wires last year than it did a decade ago, according to testimony state utility regulators submitted in mid-November to the panel.

And while CL&P’s state-approved budget for tree maintenance has fluctuated over the past decade, it hasn’t matched the 3,532 miles of wires trimmed in 2001 in any year since.

Currently the utility’s tree-trimming is roughly on a five-year cycle.

According to the General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Research, neither Connecticut nor any of its neighbors mandate specific tree-trimming cycles or buffer zones around power lines. Utilities develop plans to address these issues, and those plans must be approved by each state’s utility regulating body.

  • New York tree-trimming legislation focuses mainly on protecting major transmission lines, rather than the smaller distribution lines. Utilities generally maintain a 10- to 15-foot clearance zone around these distribution lines that bring power from substations to businesses and homes. There is no standardized tree-trimming cycle.
  • Massachusetts requires its electric utilities to meet annually with municipal tree wardens and to submit an annual reliability report that details vegetation management efforts over the prior five years. According to OLR, Western Massachusetts Electric and N-Star try to maintain clearance zones ranging from 8 to 15 feet around distribution lines, and “the companies’ stated maintenance cycle is every four to six years.” But the Bay State also doesn’t set any minimum standard in law.
  • Rhode Island also mandates a regular report from utilities on vegetation management, but sets no specifics in statute. National Grid, which serves most of the state, “tries to trim trees on a five- to seven-year cycle” with clearances of 10 to 15 feet around distribution lines, legislative researchers wrote.

CL&P reported last month it could reduce outages by up to 40 percent a decade from now with a 10-year improvement plan that would gradually add more than $13 to the average residential monthly bill — not counting inflationary increases.

These funds would pay for accelerated tree-trimming, line and pole replacement, other improvements designed to “harden” its grid against the elements and a doubling of regular line crews.

But the utility stopped short of recommending extensive burying of existing overhead lines, suggesting instead a study on the feasibility of limited, strategic use of underground lines to protect vital community centers.

CL&P officials estimate that had this system been in place by late summer, the 671,000 outages caused by Tropical Storm Irene would have been reduced to 430,000. And the October nor’easter’s 871,000 outages would have been reduced to 590,000. CL&P serves 1.2 million residential and business customers spread across 149 cities and towns.

Also Tuesday, Malloy released a plan developed by the state’s top emergency management official to help state and local governments, utilities and private social service groups coordinate a better unified response to future disasters.

The plan, developed by state Emergency Management Director William Hackett, outlines several goals to improve communication and cooperation among public and private agencies and sets an August deadline to find concrete ways to implement them.

“The unprecedented storms that hit our state last year give us an unprecedented opportunity to design a unified response plan for dealing with an emergency,” Malloy said, adding that any emergency response plan needs to be reassessed and updated regularly. “We did many things right both during and after each storm. But when it comes to responding to an emergency, the goal must always be to improve.”