Pasted Graphic Note: bold added by MAMEC

Greenwich, CL&P eye underground lines

Frank MacEachern
Saturday, February 23, 2013

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Power lines in front of the Dingletown Community Church at 376 Stanwich Road, Greenwich, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. The town has asked Connecticut Light and Power to study burying power lines in four sections of town. The areas are a section of King Street between Sherwood Avenue and Cliffdale Road; Stanwich Road between East Putnam Avenue and the Merritt Parkway, downtown Greenwich and a section of Riverside that would include Eastern Middle and Riverside schools. Many residents of the town have pushed the concept of burying lines after a series of devastating storms has seen thousands of CL&P customers in Greenwich lose power for days at a time. Photo: Bob Luckey

The town has a homework assignment for Connecticut Light & Power, as Greenwich seeks to cut down on massive power outages caused by heavy damage to the utility's infrastructure.

The town wants CL&P to come back with a report on what it would take to install underground power lines in four areas of Greenwich.

But don't expect to see excavators digging up ground any time soon, First Selectman Peter Tesei said.

"We are trying to point out that this is the first step," he said. "We are talking about something that has been years in fruition, but we have to start somewhere."

Placing power lines underground has been an issue in Greenwich since the March 2010 storm that left thousands of customers without power for days after trees and branches crashed down on power lines. The town sustained further prolonged outages due to Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and the nor'easter that swept through two months later.

Hurricane Sandy also left its mark last year, although much of the damage came in the form of coastal flooding.

The town has submitted maps showing the four areas it wants the utility to examine, the first such request from a Connecticut municipality served by CL&P.

Tesei declined to provide the maps to Greenwich Time, stating that he does not want residents to believe plans are final.

"It's only what we have given them to evaluate," Tesei said. "Once they evaluate it they may change (the boundaries) based on their circuitry."

Tesei did allow a reporter a glimpse of the maps, which were highlighted with four areas the town wants CL&P to look into. The study will only investigate those specific areas.

Two sections run along roadways -- King Street, between Sherwood Avenue and Cliffdale Avenue, and Stanwich Road, from East Putnam Avenue to the Merritt Parkway.

Tesei said the King Street area has long-term care facilities, that, while they have backup generator power, are still vulnerable if a power outage stretches longer than a few days. Stanwich Road has seen extended power outages and also leads into Banksville, which has seen lengthy outages as well, he said.

A third section is downtown, from Railroad Avenue in the south, up to Lake Avenue and William Street in the north, with Milbank Avenue on the east and Field Point Road/Dearfield Drive on the west.

The fourth section is in Riverside, including the area from the Hill House down Riverside Avenue to Oval Avenue to Summit Road to South Court. On the north side of the Metro-North Railroad line, the area includes Riverside and Eastern Middle schools and a section of Lockwood Road ending at Riverside Avenue.

High cost, low expectations

Shirley Jankowich, who lives on Riverside Avenue in one of the areas to be studied, said she is getting tired of losing power as she did during Hurricane Sandy and other times.

"I think they should do something and I think they should do it faster," she said. "When you lose it once then you think, when are you going to lose it again."

Like Jankowich, Selectman Drew Marzullo said CL&P has to move quickly. He also has little faith in the utility.

"CL&P have shown time and time again they are at best average (in restoring power), and our expectations are not good," he said. "We as a town and as a state have become desensitized to their poor performance, and this has become the norm."

Marzullo said he favors burying power lines, but understands there is a steep cost to that -- more than $1 billion for the entire town, according to a CL&P representative in 2011. Marzullo said the bill would be borne by CL&P customers.

Tesei agreed that cost will be an issue, and at the center of it is the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, which must approve any rate increases by the utility.

At a November 2011 forum at the Greenwich Library's Cole Auditorium, CL&P spokesman Thomas Dorsey said it would cost $1.2 billion to bury the town's 347 miles of overhead power lines. CL&P has 522 miles of power lines in Greenwich, of which 33 percent, or 147 miles, are already underground, Dorsey said.

Statewide, 27 percent of the utility's 23,000 miles of power lines are underground.

"The fact they have underground lines shows that they can do it," former First Selectman Jim Lash said. "The real issue here is really who is going to pay to do the work, how long will they have to pay for it and how much it will cost to equip and train more line personnel to work on underground lines compared to above ground power lines."

Though she realizes the price tag may be high, Jankowich thinks the lines should be buried if the payoff is reliable power.

'125 Years isn't very long'

On a per-mile basis, CL&P has said it costs four times as much to install underground lines ($3.6 million) compared to overhead lines ($800,000).

One Massachusetts community puts a far cheaper price tag on the project.

Hugh Lauer, chairman of the municipally owned Concord Municipal Light Plant board in Concord, Mass., said it costs about $1 million per mile to bury power lines.

After passing a bylaw that required the power lines to be buried, the municipality about 20 miles outside of Boston has buried about half of its 110 miles of line.

The money is raised by a 1.5 percent surcharge on residents' electric bills, which brings in about $400,000 to $420,000 per year. At that rate, he said it would take the about 125 years to finish the work, Lauer said.

But that's not an issue for Concordians, he said.

"We have been here a long time," Lauer said. "We celebrated our 375th anniversary a few years ago, so 125 years isn't very long."

An advocate of burying power lines,
Lauer pointed to the October 2011 nor'easter as an example of the town's foresight.

He and his wife flew into Boston after the snow had stopped and took a limousine to return to Concord.

"Everything was black. All the towns we passed, there were no lights, there were no traffic lights and the gas stations were all closed," he said. "When we got to Concord, all the lights were on."

The Concord utility does tree trimming every year, and every tree near power lines is cut back every three years, Lauer said.

He said the utility's workers say they have no concerns about underground lines being affected during power outages.

Hurricane Sandy hit the town harder, and caused some outages, but all customers had their power restored within 36 hours, he said.

Meeting Of The Minds

Lash, along with Tesei and businessman Peter Malkin, have been holding occasional meetings during the last two years with CL&P officials to discuss improving power reliability, including placing lines underground.

It's not only training their own workers that will incur an extra costs for CL&P, Lash said. Any outside workers brought in to handle severe outages will also have to know how to work on underground lines. When overhead power lines now need repair, power workers can quickly be brought in to repair them, he said.

While Lash and others cite cost as the top concern, the issue for CL&P is reliability, a spokesman said.

"We are reviewing the four locations to determine if putting our equipment in would improve our reliability," said Mitch Gross.

While Gross said he didn't have enough information to go into specifics, he did hint at the possible cost and the amount of work needed to place power lines underground.

"It entails much more than digging a trench," he said. "It would be a wide-ranging project that would deeply impact the area where the work is done."

The utility should look at a pair of neighboring states to answer those questions, Malkin said.

Con Edison in New York has determined overhead power lines are nine times more likely than underground lines to experience damage due to storms and other events, he said. Malkin also pointed to Concord's gradual burying approach as a workable solution.

Malkin said CL&P could take advantage of low interest rates to help the utility finance any upgrades. He said work could be done in a step-by-step approach, which would help spread out the cost.

Gross said discussions between the utility and the town would probably begin this week.

However, a date hasn't been set when the town can expect the report from CL&P, Tesei said. Once the report is completed, the next step is to meet with phone and cable companies that also have above-ground lines and determine the feasibility of them placing their lines underground.

Only continued pressure from residents and municipal officials will turn the utility toward burying power lines, Malkin said.

"We have to get this into the 21st century. We have a power-delivery system in Greenwich that goes back to the 19th century," Malkin said. "In Europe, they have buried power lines. To think that we cannot do it in the United States is embarrassing."; 203-625-4434