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Trees, Gravity, And The Power Grid

A year ago this week and next, Hurricane Irene hooked out of the south Atlantic and raked 15 states on the East Coast with high winds and drenching rains. By the time it reached Connecticut on August 28, Irene had been downgraded to a tropical storm, but the distinction was mostly semantic. The storm caused hurricane-type damages, temporarily cutting power to more than 670,000 Connecticut Light & Power customers and knocking Newtown’s Labor Day Parade back nearly a week from Monday morning to Sunday afternoon. Utility executives later explained that nearly all the damage to CL&P’s 17,000 miles of electric lines was caused by falling branches and trees. They reprised that theme a couple of months later when the freak October snowstorm caused even more trouble for the state’s power grid.

CL&P estimates that every mile of power lines in our densely wooded state has 184 trees close enough to those lines to require regular trimming and maintenance. That is more than 312 million trees, and if last year’s storms showed us anything, it was that CL&P cannot keep up with the job even though the power utility spent $30 million on tree maintenance last year.

In accordance with our steady bureaucratic habits, the failures highlighted by last year’s two major storms spawned a number of investigations and studies, including Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s “Two Storm Panel,” which commissioned the ingloriously named State Vegetation Management Task Force to make some recommendations. Those recommendations are scheduled to be released next week to coincide with Irene’s anniversary. They are expected to urge towns and cities to ensure better continuity in their power supplies by taking more responsibility for tree management along local roads and highways. In addition to the standard practice of cutting and trimming trees that overhang power lines, The Connecticut Mirror reports this week that the task force will endorse “genuine and holistic care for trees” in a five-year plan implementing a concept called “right tree, right place” — low trees and shrubs under and around power lines with taller ones planted farther back.

 Newtown currently spends $13,200 a year on a tree warden and another $75,000 in contracted tree services administered through the Highway Department. With 275 miles of town-maintained roads in Newtown, that $88,200 expense has to provide regular maintenance to more than 50,000 trees, according to CL&P’s calculus. That is roughly $1.75 per tree per year. It is easy to see that once again the state may be looking to municipalities to solve a problem for which they clearly do not have adequate resources. While the task force is expected to recommend that the state spend $100,000 a year in each community to underwrite these local efforts for the next two years, we will believe it when the check arrives.

Even if the state once again gets derailed in funding a needed initiative, we do think the State Vegetation Management Task Force is on the right track. We have to be smarter about what we plant near utility poles. It is something for every homeowner to think about. Until our power companies finally acknowledge the primacy of gravity and stop propping power lines up on poles and start putting them underground where they belong, we all need to be mindful of one enduring truth: whatever we stick up in the air eventually comes down. That means right tree, right place.

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