The state’s largest electric utility insisted Wednesday it could reduce outages by up to 40 percent a decade from now with a 10-year improvement plan that would gradualy add more than $13 to the average residential monthly bill.

Connecticut Light & Power Co. unveiled a plan to invest an extra $2.2 billion in tree-trimming, line and pole replacement and other improvements designed to “harden” its grid against the elements.

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.

The plan also drew some preliminary compliments from the chairman of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storm Panel, though the group isn’t expected to issue its final report until early next month.

“Not to speak for the public, but that is actually pretty reasonable,” Chairman Joseph McGee said after CL&P Vice President Dana Louth finished outlining the proposal. McGee added that the proposal could spark an interesting public debate over how much more reliable electric service should cost. “This could be a great fight.”

CL&P officials estimated that the improvements they proposed would add about 1 percent annually to the service cost, or about $1.30 to the typical monthly residential bill. By the time the proposed 10-year improvement plan is complete, an extra $13.02 would be added to that average bill.

There is one big asterisk, however.

Utility officials were quick to note that this $13.02 projection is based on current dollar values, and would certainly be higher 10 years from now after adjustments for inflation.

The most cost-efficient segment of the plan, Louth said, centers on trees, which caused the “vast, vast, vast majority” of the more than 1.4 million outages that affected the state between Tropical Storm Irene in late August and the October nor’easter combined.

CL&P would add $366 million to its tree-trimming budget in total over the next decade by:

  • Dramatically expanding trim zones to cover not only overhanging branches but also trees farther away but still at risk of falling into lines.
  • Speeding up the cycle for trimming and clearing trees from power line buffer zones from five years to four.

The company’s annual tree-trimming budget, which ranged from $23.7 million to $27.4 million over the past four years, would grow on average by more than $36 million per year.

Another $413 million would be spent over the next decade replacing 50- and 60-year-old telephone poles that struggle to support heavy equipment, as well as improving bracing materials. About 200,000 of the company’s poles were installed under earlier, less stringent national safety code standards, Louth said, but he added that not all need to be replaced.

Both the enhanced tree-trimming and the pole replacement efforts would be limited to about 60 percent of the company’s roughly 16,700 miles of wires, officials said. These changes would affect “backbone” lines and larger “lateral” lines serving larger populations.

The single-largest expense, about $1.4 billion, involves replacing thinner, bare wires with thicker wires covered with a coating designed to resist pressure from tree limbs and extend overall life.

The company explored two other alternatives, but recommended against them after noting they would double the projected cost over 10 years.

  • Expanding tree-trimming efforts and pole replacement work throughout the entire system, including smaller “lateral” lines that generally serve the fewest numbers of customers. This would add another $1.2 billion to the cost over the next decade.
  • Burying overhead wires leading into vital community centers — neighborhoods that include police and fire services, grocery stores, gasoline stations and shelters. It would cost another $1 billion to bury these lines in about 100 cities and towns.

The challenge, Louth said, is to develop a plan in which “the improvement level is significant enough to notice” but the added cost isn’t too significant given the relative infrequency of severe storms.

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 in total spread across 149 cities and towns.

A final perk of the electric grid “hardening” plan, Louth said, is that the company likely would have to double its current contingent of nearly 175 repair crews, providing a boost to the state’s economy.

The panel, which Malloy appointed to assess not only the utilities’ readiness to handle severe storms, but also that of state and local governments and private, nonprofit social services, didn’t formally endorse the CL&P plan Wednesday.

But McGee said it offers significant value simply because it represents the first public estimate of the cost of an electric grid upgrade that offers a “very significant” upgrade in overall reliability.

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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