CL&P gives report on August outage

With last month’s day-long blackout that left close to the entire down without power still fresh in people’s minds, Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) appeared before the Board of Selectmen last week to explain what happened and why.

A contingent led by resident Todd Blosser, director of division operations for CL&P’s southern division, Karl Petschauer, CL&P’s manager for engineering and construction, and Christopher Swan, the utility’s director of municipal relations and siting, gave the board their account of why decisions were made in the aftermath of the powerful winds and rains that swept through the town on Sunday, Aug. 5, which led to the massive outage a day later. At its peak, 27,603 residents were without power on Aug. 6, representing 98% of the town’s customers.

Mr. Swan handled the specific response to the Aug. 6 outage and said, as had previously been reported, that the initial damage took place on Aug. 5 when the storm caused an 85-foot tree on private property on Summit Road to fall onto a transmission feeder that parallels the Metro-North right of way for the train tracks. This knocked out power to close to 7,000 Greenwich customers but the more widespread outage did not occur until the next day.

What hadn’t been previously reported was that the intention of CL&P, in order to safely make repairs and remove the downed tree from the power line, was to power down the other power line. Doing this would have had the same impact of what ended up occurring more naturally, Mr. Swan said, but it would have taken place in a more controlled way with a specific time chosen to not interfere with rush hour commuting and the heaviest power usage from Greenwich. Mr. Swan said the plan had at first been to wait until mid-morning to turn off the line, which would have given CL&P time to alert the town and impacted businesses but that it was later decided to wait until after the evening rush hour to do it.

Ultimately that plan never came to fruition. Since there was only one line in use after the tree fell, that one line had far increased use, especially with hot weather that day. Mr. Swan said this causes what is known as “sagging,” where a lot of power flows through a line, making the conductors stretch and sag downward. And when this happened it came into contact with the tree, causing the line to trip out and for power to go out to nearly the entire town without the proper notice CL&P said it had intended to make.

By 1 p.m. on Aug. 6, a crane, which had already been brought to the scene by CL&P, was able to remove the tree, allowing for repairs to safely begin. The utility was able to restore power to all of the customers impacted by 8 that night, as it had been promising throughout the day.

Mr. Swan thanked CL&P employees, town employees, emergency services personnel and Metro-North for their work in making the repairs.

“It was a real joint effort,” Mr. Swan said.

The CL&P representatives came at the request of Selectman Drew Marzullo, who wanted to know why it was, as Mr. Swan said, a single tree could have such “devastating impact” on the town. Mr. Marzullo said the burying of power lines underground, which many in town have called for, would have lessened the issue. He asked what was being done to do that and Mr. Swan said that it was a long-term project that would take at least six years to do after the whole process of getting approvals and actual construction, noting the new Greenwich substation being built now wouldn’t even be complete until 2017.

When pressed further by Mr. Marzullo, Mr. Swan said CL&P had begun looking at the possibility of underground power lines last year but no more definitive steps had been taken yet.

Mr. Swan said the assessments after previous storms, including the 2010 nor’easter and last fall’s storms, had shown that CL&P had “to go outside our traditional trim zone” when it came to working on trees that could cause damage. He noted that this tree was on private property and that CL&P would not have had the right to cut it down, but in cases where CL&P does have the right, Mr. Swan claimed the utility had doubled its budget to work on vegetation management and working with all towns it has customers in.

“This is an issue we need to continue to work collaboratively on with the towns, the state and, in this case, Metro-North Railroad, on,” Mr. Swan said.

First Selectman Peter Tesei asked what mechanism there was to “compel” private property owners close to major transmission lines to curtail trees and vegetation that could cause such damage. Mr. Swan said there wasn’t one, that it would have to be cooperative and voluntary, and Mr. Tesei said this was a case where work had to be done on a state level.

“It’s very difficult for municipalities to single-handedly compel something,” Mr. Tesei said. “Unless the state could, through legislative action, stipulate that this would be a requirement and you could come in and do this if it jeopardizes the greater good, there’s not much we could do on our own.”

Mr. Tesei said that since this is an election year for the Connecticut General Assembly it might be an opportunity to press incumbents and challengers to vow to take action on it. He said he knew that this was an issue that was bothering many residents, but it was best to examine the situation under calmer circumstances in the aftermath of major outages.

“We need to look at the facts,” Mr. Tesei said. “We need to take the emotion out of this and understand the root cause of the problems and what can be done to address them. I say that a lot about budget issues and it’s the same here. We need to be unemotional and non political here. That’s what I think local government should be all about.”

Selectman David Theis asked CL&P if it would work with the town to put together language for Greenwich’s state delegation for possible legislation and Mr. Swan said it would.

Mr. Tesei praised CL&P for its responses to recent power outages that he said were more “infrastructure related” than from storms. He said the utility had “stepped up to the plate” by investing in new equipment as part of ongoing long-term upgrade projects in town.

“We are appreciative of the relationship that has developed,” Mr. Tesei said. “The fact is we’re one of 140 communities that are provided service by CL&P and I think we have received a sound level of commitment of human resources to address our concerns.”

Mr. Marzullo, though, said there had to be continued improvements, particularly in the area of communications.

“In this area we’re susceptible to weather-related emergencies and I think we’ve all accepted that,” Mr. Marzullo said. “I just want you [Mr. Swan] to bring a message to the powers that be and that’s that communication is so important. A lot of people need information during outages and I think it would help if there were more timely updates coming from you. Giving a window of 10-12 hours for restoration is unacceptable. People, including myself, would be happy to know more. I know you can’t pinpoint to the hour but there has to be a better job communicating with the public calling the CL&P phone line.”

Mr. Swan replied, “We’ve heard that loud and clear.”

 

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