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CT Construction Digest Wednesday September 16, 2020

Want underground power lines across CT? It could cost you $50K

Alexander Soule  Eversource estimates at more than $28 billion the cost of entrenching one of every four miles of its Connecticut power lines, in any effort to reduce the odds of power outages during storms — and more than $61 billion for the remaining wires.

The utility filed the figures with the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, in response to questions posed by the office of Connecticut Attorney General William Tong into the response of Eversource and Avangrid subsidiary United Illuminating to mass outages caused by Tropical Storm Isaias in early August.

During tandem hearings by PURA and the Connecticut General Assembly, Eversource CEO Jim Judge has said the cost of trenching power lines underground is too prohibitive to consider on any widespread scale. The subsequent estimate averages out to about $50,000 for each of Eversource’s 1.2 million customers in Connecticut — or $75,000 if excluding the third of customers already connected to the grid via underground lines.

The $61.7 billion figure amounts to a fraction of Eversource’s costs to remove trees and branches threatening lines and repairing lines after storms, totaling more than $1.5 billion between 2010 and 2019.Generally, Eversource had lower Isaias power restoration times in towns with a higher percentage of electric lines underground, according to data the company filed with PURA in response to Tong’s questions.

But there were significant outliers, including Danbury, Greenwich, Bethel, Brookfield and Redding. All rank in the top third of municipalities for higher percentages of underground lines, but had Isaias average power restoration times lagging most other cities and towns in Eversource’s territories.

“The length of restoration in any community depends on the significance of the damage in that location,” stated Eversource spokesperson Mitch Gross, in an email response to a query. “We agree that undergrounding parts of the system could be beneficial but we don’t necessarily draw a correlation between towns with undergrounding and the length of the outages in that town in this storm restoration. We’d have to analyze the circumstances in each municipality to determine the benefit of undergrounding there.”

Eversource estimates the cost of burying an overhead line at $1 million a mile on rural roads, and as much as $14 million along city streets. By comparison, a “rebuild” of a damaged overhead line along town roads averages more than $300,000 — a differential that would take three failures along the same stretch of power line before the investment in a replacement would pay for itself.

While underground lines are far more expensive to fix in the event of any failures — flooding represents one peril — there are other financial benefits including ongoing maintenance. Eversource spent less than $15 million last year on the operation and maintenance of underground lines and systems in its grid, versus $130 million for the lines strung overhead. Strung out over the lifeline of a power line that spans several decades, that can amount to billions of dollars in savings.

Isaias overwhelmed the Connecticut grid, with Eversource crews responding to more than 21,600 points of failure. More than a million customers lost power during the storm and afterward, for intervals spanning a few minutes to more than nine days in a handful of towns including Greenwich, Wilton and Redding.

Some municipalities require new real estate developments to use underground lines, including Bethel which is among the dozen Eversource territories with the highest preponderance at more than 40 percent. But Isaias showed that extensive vulnerabilities remain, including east of downtown where the town’s schools, police station and a senior complex are located.

First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said it took Eversource six days to restore power to the police station, with repeated pleas through a utility liaison not producing results. First and foremost, he remains a vocal critic of Eversource’s organizational procedures in prioritizing field crew dispatch after storms, saying the town has been at the end of the line repeatedly when it comes to full power restoration after major storms in Connecticut.

“We haven’t gone back and said, ‘OK, let’s take these [lines] that are up in the air and stick them underground,’” said Knickerbocker, who is also president of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. “Frankly, that’s their problem not ours — they should be paying for that.”

Hartford approves purchase, redevelopment of Ann Uccello St. properties

Seam Teehan   he city of Hartford will buy two lots on Ann Uccello Street as part of a larger project to redevelop the city's North End neighborhood.

In a unanimous vote Monday night, Hartford City Council approved the $17,000 purchase of 522 and 532 Ann Uccello St. from social services nonprofit House of Bread Inc.
Upon completion of the land sale, the city plans to market those properties along with other city-owned parcels at 1355 & 1359 Main St. for redevelopment. 

The city's Department of Development Services has determined that its purchase of the Ann Uccello properties is "a key component" of the so-called "Salvin Block" project, records show. The development services office would work with Hartford's neighborhood revitalization zone (NRZ) program to review and provide input on the project.

Hartford's redevelopment plan is surfacing months after New York landlord-developer Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC, one of downtown’s most active landlords, acquired the Flatiron" building at nearby 529-543 Ann Uccello St. and the lot at 525 Ann Uccello.

Shelbourne has said it plans to redevelop the three-story, brick edifice into new housing space, and called the purchase “an important component of our long-term plans to organically invest in the Capital City.”

Lawmakers move toward reimbursements for electric outages

Ken Dixon  Lawmakers are likely to bring a bill that would revamp electric utilities’ obligations in storm recovery in a special legislative session as soon as next week. But despite pleas from Republicans, the General Assembly is unlikely to discuss sweeping revisions to the controversial police-accountability bill that was approved last month.

As majority Democrats shape the special session, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney of New Haven said the top of the agenda would be a so-called take-back-our-grid bill in response to Isaias, the recent tropical storm that knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Looney and Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin both said Tuesday that reimbursement for the spoilage of food and medicine is high on the list of provisions, as the bill takes form. Many lawmakers were rankled by the unwillingness of the state’s electric distribution monopolies — especially Eversource Energy and also United Illuminating — to provide paybacks to customers.“I cannot see a way that covering the cost of lost food because of the multi-day outage isn’t included in this,” Aresimowicz said. “When you’re a family living on the edges and you’ve spent a couple hundred dollars on food that you had to throw way because you were without power for seven days, it hurts.”

Aresimowicz said Eversource is participating in crafting the bill. Eversource CEO Jim Judge said last week that a preliminary version of the bill, setting deadlines for restoration after mass outages, would have “inintended consequences,” and “will come at a massive cost.” Judge said he did not oppose a move toward a performance-based reimbursement for Eversource, which is favored by Gov. Ned Lamont and Marissa P. Gillett, chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, ranking Republican member on the Energy & Technology Committee, which oversees utility law, agreed that utilities should face some kind of penalty if they fail to restore power within a reasonable period of time. Electric providers in other states, including New York, have to reimburse consumers for lost food, he noted.Formica also believes that the 2021 General Assembly has to revisit the 1998 legislation that restructured the state’s electric landscape, in which providers were separated from the generator side of the business. “Times have certainly changed since then,” Formica said. “We have the luxury of hindsight.”

Also on tap for the special session would be the annual school-construction legislation; judicial appointments including the state Supreme Court nomination of Judge Christine E. Keller, whose son, Matt Ritter, is House majority leader; and allowing condominiums into the program that assists owners of homes with failing foundations due to a flaw in the minerals used in eastern Connecticut in the 1980s.

Under a scenario currently under consideration, the state Senate would convene on Thursday, September 24 to consider bills, followed by the House the week afterwards, possibly on Tuesday the 29th or the day after.

No reworking police accountability

Looney said that requests from Republicans and police groups to revise the police accountability bill won’t be brought up, despite a lengthy critique of the law Monday by Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. Fasano claimed the legislation is discouraging to active officers and potential recruits alike. The bill may be linked to a recent uptick in crime statewide, he asserted.

Fasano said that the entire bill must be revisited because he believes it undermines confidence in law enforcement. His complaint turned political, charging that a recent vote of no-confidence in Gov. Ned Lamont, by the State Police Union is also repudiation of the Democratic majorities in the legislature.

“It's clear that the damage caused by this bill is already being felt in our communities,” Fasano wrote. “Police officers do not have confidence in the administration. Delaying action on all problematic pieces of the new law will only create more public-safety issues.”

The major portions of the bill would ban choke holds and create a statewide system where officers found to have acted wantonly and maliciously could become decertified and ineligible for jobs in other cities and towns.Looney likened Fasano’s “wholesale opposition” to the bill as similar to complaints that arose in 1966 over the so-called Miranda law from the U.S. Supreme Court, requiring that law enforcement read aloud the rights of suspects, which is now routine and uncontroversial.

“He wants to basically dismantle the legislation,” Looney said Tuesday. “That’s a nonstarter for all of us. It just demonstrates an interest in trying to repeal the bill.”

Naugatuck Detective Sgt. Amanda Devan says she and other cops from around the state are discouraged by the new law and want lawmakers to amend certain sections.

“The majority of us who are good cops believe there needs to be a fix,” said the 20-year veteran officer, in an interview. “Certain sections are very ambiguous.”

A definition of “undermining confidence” for disciplining police is “vague and undefined,” Devan said, leaving open the possibility of a car crash resulting in the dismissal of an officer. She is also wary of the 45-day time limits on investigations of officers.“Is that time enough?” Devan asked. “It’s not clear.”

During last month’s debate, lawmakers in favor of the legislation stressed that only officers who display “wanton and malicious” behavior would be in danger of decertification, or exposed to civil lawsuits for brutality.

She said that even though the new law doesn’t take effect until next summer, it’s already causing veterans like her to contemplate retirement, representing a potential wide-ranging loss of institutional knowledge. “Now we have problems hiring people,” said Devan, stressing that the most-experienced are often in charge of field training.

Devan, who participated in a recent video aimed at persuading lawmakers, predicted that with veterans leaving, departments could be under-staffed, leaving officers in danger of additional stress and the potential for burnout from routine 12-hour shifts. State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, deputy minority leader, said Tuesday that the entire bill, which had marathon debates in the House and Senate last month, is worthy of “a robust conversation,” particularly the portion dealing with the end of civil immunity from personal lawsuits.

Candelora said that he’s concerned that this close to the Nov. 3 election, Democrats seem intent to lard the special session with things that can wait until 2021 and a newly elected House and Senate. Other possible bills that could be included are environmental legislation on cleaning properties of hazardous materials; and an adjustment to liquor laws to lower costs for private clubs.

Aresimowicz said in an interview that Fasano’s aggressive request for an entirely new debate on police accountability was so blatantly political that even though some minor changes could make sense, it’s unlikely to be included in the governor’s upcoming call for the special session.

“Based upon the letter Sen. Fasano sent, it makes it sure that it will not be taken up again,” Aresimowicz said.