AP NEWS

People, trees and power

February 4, 2019

Trees are at the top of people’s minds again. After several years of heavy felling and pruning in response to storm-spawned power outages, we look up and don’t see nearly as many as before. Connecticut looks different, its roadsides less leafy in summer and its state highway shoulders downright denuded in any season. It’s worrisome, but there are reasons.

The severe storms of 2011-2013 — Irene and Sandy, as well as the October snowstorm that devastated most of Connecticut but spared our corner of the state — resulted in long-lasting power outages. Ninety percent of outages are blamed on falling trees, including power failures that occurred in last winter’s major snowstorms. “Vegetation management,” or tree removal, has been the response of the state’s electrical utility companies.

Thousands of trees have come down as the utility companies try, sometimes in ungainly ways, to protect their transmission lines. The loss of so many trees can’t seem good when we are told how much we need them to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and cool the ever hotter days with their shade. Many beautiful, graceful old friends have been cut down in what looked to be the prime of their lives.

A University of Connecticut program offers consolation for people who hate choosing between tress and electricity. The UConn Stormwise program is strategizing ways to prevent future large-scale disruptions by managing trees and forests to make them more wind-resistant and generally stronger and healthier.

To collect public opinion about tree cutting, the UConn Department of Natural Resources & the Environment recently sent out a survey asking a sampling of state residents about attitudes toward roadside tree and forest management for the purpose of reducing power outages. UConn’s Eversource Energy Center, an “energy utility-academia partnership” since 2015 that researches technology to assure “reliable power during extreme weather and security events,” is funding the survey. Eversource is the commercial electric utility that serves most of the state — and one that took a beating in public opinion after the outages.

If anything, the survey is coming late in the game. In the immediate aftermath of the October 2011 snowstorm, people in picturesque towns like Simsbury, who lost power for days or longer, were asked whether they be willing to chop down all the trees lining their streets. Some said yes, some no, but really they were working without enough facts to form an opinion.

With Stormwise, UConn is managing test lots in various parts of the state, including Voluntown, and that’s good. Weather has been getting measurably more extreme, and storms stronger and more frequent.

Now it’s time to share with the public. The tree-cutting that has gone on in recent years looks like overkill in some areas. The extent of it is often a visual shock. Worry about future outages may have subdued complaints for a while. The spectre of storm damage may even have served as cover for wholesale tree cutting for other purposes, such as sidewalk repair, which is far less of a public safety hazard than a week in the cold and the dark.

But trees have their fans, as New London’s recent tree inventory showed. Public interest is up.

Eversource officials will go before the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority this week for hearings on the company’s request for a rate increase to cover $150 million in storm-related repairs in the last two years. If the increase is granted, customers who may have thought the utility was doing them a favor by cutting a tree in front of their property will pay higher monthly bills, along with everyone else.

Eversource will have to convince PURA of its need. Did the tree removal before the last two winters mitigate the damage at all? If so, prevention should be a big part of the answer for avoiding post-cleanup sticker shock in the future.

The Day will await with interest the results of the UConn survey and, and we hope, a greater public understanding of what can be done for the joint benefit of people and trees.

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