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Electrical grid: state’s top infrastructure need?

Anger was as thick as the wood smoke in the air as Connecticut coped with the damage done by the freak October 29 snowstorm that brought trees down on utility lines, roads and houses in the northwestern half of the state, maybe the state’s worst natural disaster since the devastating flooding of 1955.Nobody was ready enough — from Connecticut Light & Power Co. and state government, which didn’t have enough repair crews ready, to the people themselves, many of whom neglected to fill their gas tanks, stock up on batteries, and insist that utility companies trim the trees near the wires on their own lots. A Manchester man who complained three years ago about branches overhanging wires in his neighborhood noted ruefully last week that his complaint was ignored, and now the branches and their tree have fallen and taken wires down.But then nobody could have expected something this bad, nor so soon after the tropical storm that caused similar damage in August. Back then there was consensus that more tree trimming was necessary, but it had hardly begun, and the trimming needed to prepare for the sort of storm just experienced wouldn’t be trimming at all. It would be clear-cutting everything within reach of a utility line, making Connecticut’s streetscape look like the Great Plains.In the end, any negligence, real and imagined, is small compared to the scope of the disaster. Surrounded by downed trees, Connecticut now has to reconsider its streetscape or hold its peace. Even now, utility lines throughout the state run under or through trees and branches. Many streets are green or colorful tunnels for much of the year. It has looked lovely — at least when the electricity flows and the adjacent houses are lit and warm. Gov. Malloy says the state commission studying the tropical storm disaster will study the snowstorm disaster as well, but it may be plain already that Connecticut needs firm rules about tree and branch proximity to utility lines, that enforcing such rules will take many months of cutting, and that people will complain about such rules as soon as electricity returns and enforcement begins.Florida has more experience with weather disasters and requires gas stations on evacuation routes to have electric generators to prevent the long lines and panic just experienced by Connecticut when the power went out. Connecticut could legislate a generator requirement for gas stations and reimburse them a basic cost.As lack of electricity caused people to shiver in the dark and businesses to close, even the governor might have wondered whether he has read Connecticut’s infrastructure needs correctly, what with his plans to spend $1.5 billion for a new UConn Health Center in Farmington, a private medical research facility there, and a bus highway from Hartford to New Britain. Improving the state’s electrical system may be by far the state’s highest infrastructure need. Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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