CL&P Prepares for the Next Big One

June 1, 2012
After two major storms ravaged its service area, the utility increased its tree-trimming budget almost 100% and ramped up emergency planning efforts.

Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) has embarked on an ambitious campaign to provide more reliable service and minimize the impacts of major storms to people, property and Connecticut's economy. A key component of the work, in cooperation with state, local and private individuals, is a nearly 100% increase in the utility's tree-trimming budget. In 2011, two major storms, less than two months apart, ravaged Connecticut's electrical infrastructure, severely impacted commerce and disrupted people's everyday lives.

In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene, a wind-driven event, caused outages to more than 671,000 CL&P customers. Still reeling from Irene, the utility and its customers were hit by a second storm in October, a nor'easter, that produced record-setting outages. At one point, more than 831,000 customers, or 70% of CL&P's 1.2 million customers, were without power. The damage also was record-setting, as between 8 inches and 16 inches (20 cm to 40 cm) of heavy, wet snow fell on trees still carrying their leaves. The tremendous weight broke countless branches and trees statewide, which came crashing down on CL&P's electrical distribution system.

A Tale of Two Storms

Damage from what are now referred to as the “Two Storms” was markedly different. Tropical Storm Irene was a noisy, horizontal-force event with 70-mph (113-kmph) winds pushing over trees in full leaf and blowing limbs into wires from the side. In contrast, the October nor'easter was a relatively quiet, vertical-force event with rain-soaked snow sticking to leaves and tree branches, causing breakage from above rather than the side. As an example, oak is considered one of the utility's stronger tree species. But because oaks hold their leaves later in the season, they were devastated by the storm compared to the maple, birch and ash trees, which had already lost their canopies.

The outages were the worst in CL&P's history. The storms provided a stark warning of the need to make a greater investment in tree management. They also gave a glimpse of the potential damage that could result if Connecticut got another storm equal in force to the 1938 hurricane or a similar major weather event.

Two separate reports, the Witt report commissioned by Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and a second evaluation by Davies Consultants commissioned by CL&P, noted the effort the utility made in responding to customers' concerns. But the reports also pointed out weaknesses in the utility's preparation, communication and organization during the storms. The reports made it clear that, over the past 30 years, the balance between attractive wooded landscapes and the need to provide reliable electrical power had shifted in favor of trees. The reports recognized more tree cutting must be done.

Surrounded by Trees

Connecticut's natural beauty stems, in part, from the rich variety and scenic attributes of its trees. But, in preparing for a storm, trees become a big problem.

Connecticut's trees are older, taller, larger in girth and far more deteriorated than they were 100 years ago. Over the years, Connecticut has re-forested itself even as customers' expectations for quality, reliable electric service have increased. With the Industrial Revolution, the way of life moved from the farms to the cities. Trees began to grow back and reclaim the land. Today, they dominate Connecticut's landscape and the state has reached the point at which its forests are acquiring old-growth characteristics.

Another issue for storm preparation is that along Connecticut's roads, there is an average of 186 trees per mile, one of the highest ratios of any state. What's more, CL&P estimates there is an average of 10 to 20 trees per mile along its roads that are at risk. An at-risk tree is one that contains structural defects and should be taken down.

This year, CL&P will invest US$53.5 million — compared to $27 million last year — in its line-clearance program. That is five times the total tree maintenance budgets of all 169 cities and towns in Connecticut combined. Some 200 outside crews are under contract to perform those duties.

Trimming back trees is necessary because about 90% of outages during storms are caused by trees falling on wires or taking down CL&P's utility poles. Another reason tree-trimming operations are so important is because two-thirds of Connecticut's trees are taller than the utility's poles, and CL&P is responsible for 17,000 miles (27,359 km) of overhead electric lines.

In this context, CL&P cannot solve the problem alone. The magnitude of the issue is such that the state utilities, state of Connecticut, local officials and private property owners all must realize what is at stake and contribute efforts to address the problem of declining trees and damage to the electric and communications infrastructure.

CL&P is particularly pleased the state Department of Transportation has begun a tree-cutting operation along state roads. This effort helps shift some of the work burden from CL&P and could help reduce the number of major state roads blocked by fallen trees in future storms.

Tree-Trimming Practices

CL&P's standard trimming parameters are 15 ft (4.6 m) above, 8 ft (2.4 m) to the sides of and 10 ft (3 m) below the utility's lines. This year, the utility plans to perform work along 4,300 miles (6,920 km) of primary distribution lines. As part of its enhanced tree-trimming program, the utility also plans to remove all branches above, below and 8 ft to the side of its wires along 550 miles (885 km) of lines. Combined, the 4,800 miles (7,725 km) of trimming is being described as the expanded tree work program when the utility meets with public officials and customers.

CL&P's tree cutting is not arbitrary. Connecticut law requires adjoining property owners to approve cutting before the electric utility's contractors prune or remove any tree. If public safety or a difference of opinion is an issue, an appeal process takes place.

The state has joined in the effort to reduce problem trees by participating in a vegetation management task force. Among its members are utility representatives, officials of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Connecticut Forest and Park Association, town tree wardens and representatives of environmental groups.

The task force's job is not to cut trees but rather to ensure resources for the care of trees are provided and sustained in every community. The task force's work could do a great deal to instill confidence among the public that the state is acting intelligently and responsibly in managing its trees located near utility wires.

Getting the Job Done Well

CL&P employs state-licensed arborists to ensure contractors are doing the work the right way and to communicate with customers and public officials. There is an on-site review of each crew's work and techniques.

The utility assesses its contractors' overall performance each month using several criteria:

  • Safety
  • Work schedule
  • Cost
  • Quality
  • Customer service.

The utility also uses incentives and penalties in contracts to produce timely, quality work from its contractors.

CL&P is working hard to maintain a stable contractor workforce with the knowledge and skills to meet all work challenges. The utility's contract strategy includes a variety of methods — lump sum, not to exceed, unit price, and time and material — to achieve a low price and high-quality service. The utility's employees and contractors are better educated, better trained and more capable than ever before, and CL&P continues to make investments to ensure excellent service through talented, knowledgeable workers.

A frequent complaint from local officials during the storms last year was inadequate communication. CL&P has reinforced and reorganized its team of municipal liaisons with assignments to communicate with specific towns or cities. The utility will be working diligently to ensure state and local officials know what it is doing and that they are in contact with employees designated as liaisons.

Part of the Plan

Tree cutting is one aspect of CL&P's overall plan to harden the electrical infrastructure so that it is less vulnerable to damage from external forces in storms. The utility plans to use the latest and best technology to achieve this hardening of equipment and materials.

CL&P cannot achieve the goal of responsible tree management alone. It cannot emphasize enough to the public that cooperation is required to have effective emergency plans in place. Preparing and operating properly requires interaction between the state and CL&P, key officials in local communities, such as first selectmen and tree wardens, and a cooperative, knowledgeable public.

It is essential CL&P establish collaborative relationships with the state, local officials and private landowners. All are critical to the success of this plan. Another lesson is learning from the past so it can do things differently going forward.

Here are some of the utility's communication plans associated with tree trimming:

  • Use of websites, such as, where customers can click on the vegetation management link and see which streets in their town are scheduled for tree trimming.

  • A full-color brochure distributed to customers who have questions about the work

  • An insert placed in customers' bills to explain the program and solicit requests for the aforementioned brochure

  • Communications to employees explaining the work

  • A door hanger explaining the program, including a card soliciting requests for customers to sign and return

  • A reprint of a booklet on the proper planting of trees and shrubs.

CL&P also plans to send speakers into the community, use television and radio, and write explanations of the problem for op-ed pages in the state's newspapers. There cannot be enough discussion of this issue to focus attention and efforts on a solution.

One of the issues facing Connecticut and CL&P is how much investment in tree cutting is adequate. Some catching up is required to remove dangerous trees that could fall and injure people, and to trim trees to remove their threat to electrical wires. However, the process is not merely one of spending money, but rather balancing what expenditure is needed to provide safety and avoid damages. In other words, it is a matter of costs and benefits that must be reviewed annually.

The goal is to sustain a focus on the problem so people understand the need to perform tree maintenance for the long-term betterment of the society. CL&P has a choice. It can do this intelligently in a controlled manner now or face the potential ravages of an uncontrolled set of circumstances in a major storm. When the problem is uncontrolled, people's lives change dramatically for the worst.

No one wants to remove trees capriciously. After all, trees make Connecticut such a beautiful state with stunning vistas. But the balance between nature, public safety and commerce is skewed. It is critical to make people understand the problem of bringing the issue back into balance will require effective, continuing communication among government, private industry and the public.

David A. Goodson is manager of vegetation management for Connecticut Light & Power.

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