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Getting power to the people: CL&P explains electrical grid

Dominic Scerbo and Lissette Andino from CL&P spoke to Westonites about how power travels to customers in Weston and how restoration efforts work in the aftermath of destructive storms such as Sandy. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

Representatives from Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) came to town on Saturday and spoke to Westonites about how the electrical grid works, and how repairs are made when the grid is damaged.

Lissette Andino, the community relations leader for southern Connecticut and Weston’s CL&P liaison, and Dominic Scerbo, CL&P account executive, gave an approximately 45-minute presentation, then spent about the same amount of time answering questions and listening to comments from the audience of about 25 people.

The meeting was prompted by the extended power outages in Weston after Superstorm Sandy at the end of October.

Analogies

Mr. Scerbo likened the power grid to both a tree and a highway system.

In his analogy to a tree, he explained that substations — the first stop for electricity after it travels from generating plants — are like the roots. “Without healthy roots, the tree will die,” he said.

The wires that travel from substations along mostly main thoroughfares — like Lyons Plain and Godfrey roads in Weston — are like the trunk of the tree, Mr. Scerbo said. These are the “backbone” of the system, and “without them, we can’t get you the power,” he said.

The tree’s branches are analogous to electrical side taps — the smaller lines that go into each neighborhood and along side streets.

And finally, the leaves of the tree can be thought of as the electrical connections or service drops — the small twisted wires that run from the roadside to individual meter boxes on homes.

A video similarly compared the grid to a highway system and talked about the size of power lines as they relate to how much and far voltage is carried through them.

Transmission lines are the largest ones that go from power plants to substations; they carry the highest voltage and take it the greatest distance. These are like interstate highways, the video said, on which people travel the fastest and farthest.

Power lines, like roads, branch off the transmission wires like the interstate branches off to smaller highways, which lead to local roads, which lead to smaller roads, until eventually one reaches one’s driveway.

Substations

Mr. Scerbo explained that one point of confusion for many people during Sandy had to do with the substations that serve Weston.

Electricity is delivered to about 3,808 customers in town by three separate substations:

• Peaceable substation, in the Georgetown section of Redding, which serves the northern and central portion of Weston, from about Norfield Road north (about 1,400 customers).

• Weston substation, located in the southwestern corner of town, which serves most of the southern portion of town and the majority of people (about 2,400 customers).

• Wilton, which serves just nine Weston customers near the Cannondale Road/Wampum Hill area.

In response to a question from the audience, Mr. Scerbo said the three substations are comparable facilities, although, he said, the Peaceable one “is a very key one” that has undergone a lot of updates recently.

Priorities

When it comes to Weston’s “priority” areas, they are split between the Weston and Peaceable substations.

The police station, town hall, the Town Hall Annex, the Lyons Plain and Norfield firehouses, the Department of Public Works, Hurlbutt Elementary School, and the library all receive power from the Weston substation in the southern end of town.

The communications tower at town hall and the intermediate, middle, and high schools all receive their power from the Peaceable substation to the north.

It’s important to note, Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said, that while the town is able to set the police, fire, and school facilities as priorities, “we don’t set priorities beyond that.”

Ms. Andino emphasized that priority locations are designated as such for safety reasons. “Safety is always our No. 1 priority,” she said.

Restoration

When there is a break — or many, as there were during Sandy — in the network of wires leading from transmission lines to substations to individual homes, Mr. Scerbo said, repairs begin at the point closest to the beginning of the circuit.

So with widespread outages, power is first restored to any main transmission lines, then to substations and the lines leading directly from them, then to “priority customers” (emergency services like fire, police, hospitals, and nursing homes, shelters and schools). Then the power company tries to bring up the greatest number of customers it can in the shortest period of time, working its way to smaller and smaller numbers of outages caused by a single break.

Numbers

In the aftermath of Sandy, every municipality in Connecticut was affected with power outages. It did not, however, hold the record for the most number of outages. There were more after the October 2011 nor’easter, after Storm Irene in 2011, and after Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

Ellen Uzenoff, who was in the audience, pointed out that the number of days without service — at least in Weston, where many were without power for more than a week — was the bigger issue.

After Sandy, Mr. Scerbo said, CL&P had to deal with 16,460 separate trouble spots. The company replaced 1,727 poles; more than 80 of those were in Weston, and each pole takes four to six hours to replace, he said.

Mr. Scerbo explained that with large storms, especially ones that affect the entire region, there will always be a “lag time” when it comes to power restoration.

Part of that has to do with bringing workers from out of state, often from across the country and even from Canada. Once crews arrive, they then must rest, and assessments have to be done before actual repair work can start. This can sometimes take several days.

“There will always be a lag because with a regional storm, everybody wants these crews. … This is a very hard time for you all to wait through,” Mr. Scerbo acknowledged.

Communication

Mr. Scerbo and Ms. Andino agreed that communication — especially between CL&P and the public — had improved since Irene and the October 2011 storm. They also agreed, however, that internal communication still needs some work.

Ms. Weinstein agreed, too. The South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA), which includes Weston, is formally asking the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) to look at CL&P’s internal communication because, especially at the “upper management” level, there were definitely flaws, she said.

She also noted poor communication between the power company and the telephone and cable operators whose lines share utility poles with CL&P. Lack of a protocol for moving those damaged lines — not something CL&P can automatically do — often created unnecessary delays during restoration, Ms. Weinstein said.

In addition, SWRPA is asking CL&P to:

• Get information to the public sooner.

• Provide accurate restoration estimates to customers without power.

• Address the lag in crew arrival time by possibly changing contractual arrangements to get people here sooner, even if they have to be paid more.

Ms. Weinstein had nothing but praise for Ms. Andino, Mr. Scerbo, and the people “on the ground” during CL&P’s restoration efforts.

“People on the operations end did a fantastic job,” Ms. Weinstein said. “Where we see the need for the most improvement is with upper management.”

Burying wires

Several members of the public were strong proponents of burying power lines, calling the current electrical system an antiquated “horse-and-buggy approach to delivering electricity.”

Ms. Weinstein said it would cost an estimated $15 million per mile to bury power lines, making it a very unlikely scenario.

Mr. Scerbo further explained that changing the current infrastructure is much more expensive and complicated than burying lines initially, as is done in Weston with new subdivisions.

Another problem with trying to bury lines, he said, is many would need to be buried on private property, so all property owners would need to sign off on it. If some didn’t, it would create a “porpoising” effect, with some aboveground and some under, which would actually make the situation worse, he said.

Ms. Andino said there is a need to focus on prevention and preparedness. CL&P is doing enhanced tree trimming to try to clear wires, but it needs the public to make that a priority on private property as well, she said.

People should also have storm kits that help them cope with extended power outages, and they can consider using generators. CL&P is working to educate the public on how to use generators safely, she said.

The entire Dec. 8 presentation, including videos and PowerPoint slides, is available on Cablevision’s government access channel, and will be posted on the town website, westonct.gov, under Meetings.

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