Two storms that knocked out power to more than 800,000 residents prompted a discussion about what utility companies, the state and towns can do to ensure the power stays on even during extreme weather events.

The forum, "Power Struggle: Balancing Needs of People, Power and Trees," included five panelists who discussed what improvements could be made to utility infrastructure without burdening rate payers with higher monthly bills.

Tuesday night's discussion, which was sponsored by The League of Women Voters of Stamford, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan and Norwalk, and Greenwich Tree Conservancy, Fairfield Forestry Committee, Stamford Tree Foundation and the Tree Conservancy of Darien, focused on several different ways power outages could be reduced through a combination of improving the existing poles and lines, trimming trees and burying lines in financially feasible areas.

Joe McGee, chairman of the governor's two-storm panel; Ken Bowes, vice president of energy delivery services of Connecticut Light and Power; Jonathan Schrag, deputy commissioner for energy; Erick Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut forest and park association; and Chris Roy, engineering and operations manager of Concord Light Plant all weighed in on how they believed the problem could be solved.

McGee said one of the problems the storm panel encountered when it assessed the response to Hurricane Irene and the October snow storm was the state's lack of preparedness and a lack of coordination between the state and towns.

"We found we were not optimally prepared," McGee said. "It was not all the utilities' fault. There were problems with utilities but the towns also had problems as well. There needs to be better coordination between the towns and first responders. How will we use resources together to do a better job? I believe very strongly the local level is the best place to get the work done."

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Storm preparation was a hot topic as several questions were posed about how response times could be improved.

"What we've done during the post-October storm is to actually bring in about 100 additional line workers, all of them with Connecticut based companies," Bowes said. "They are doing catch-up work on our line projects that had to be deferred and doing post storm cleanup activities. We are anticipating the work will last six months. They were used this past weekend during that small snow and wind event on Saturday."

In addition to being asked what steps were being taken to improve response times to storms, the panelists also discussed possible solutions to limit the damage to power infrastructure which included putting power lines underground.

Concord Light Plant, which is located in Concord, Mass., began the process of slowly converting the town from overhead power lines to underground lines as part of a process to increase the reliability of the power grid, Roy said. However, he said the project was expensive and even increasing customer's monthly rates didn't allow the company to constantly work on burying the lines.

"Our 2 percent rate we add on for undergrounding doesn't allow us to underground on a consistent basis year by year by year. For instance, this year we are taking a year off from another major undergrounding initiative. We are still not able financially to continue biting off large chunks of the town every year," Roy said. "There are other benefits we offer when we aren't undergrounding. We reinvest in the overhead systems by upgrading wiring and do our own tree trimming."

Schrag agreed the cost of converting all overhead lines to underground lines could be prohibitive from a financial standpoint, he estimate the cost to be about $1 million per mile to bury power lines, but suggested the state could bury lines in strategic places.

"We can identify critical infrastructure around the state. What was special about the October storm was that it affected the actual transmission grid and when that occurs it's difficult for Connecticut to defend itself," Schrag said. "We need enough generating capacity close to critical infrastructure so the state can be better defended."

Bowes said CL&P currently has about 6,000 miles of lines underground versus 17,000 miles of overhead lines. During Tropical Storm Irene and the October storm, CL&P responded to 40,000 problem areas with overhead lines as opposed to only 200 problems in areas where the power lines were buried. He said most of the problems with the underground lines were associated with water infiltrating the underground lines.

The issue of underground lines versus overhead lines fed into a question about what steps could be taken to make overhead lines less vulnerable to being knocked down by trees or wind.

Hammerling said one area the state has been lacking in was its funding for tree trimming.

"Trees are good for business. They enhance the community economy. People linger and shop longer on tree lined streets. Trees also create wildlife habitats and increase property values," Hammerling said. "There is a need for balance. As much as we love trees we understand they can, and should be, managed and at times removed. I was really concerned about some of the testimony given before the storm panel that talked about clearing utility corridors to the nub as if that would make the problem go away. Trees help slow winds. Imagine if you removed those trees and exposed utility infrastructure to the area that has just been cleared."

Even though all of the panelists had different ideas about addressing issues with ensuring residents aren't left in the dark for extended periods of time, they all agreed residents needed to keep the pressure on legislators and not let the issue get pushed to the back burner.

"You've got to bite an issue and hang onto it. It's the long term runner who wins the game. There are 150 people here and a great deal of interest," McGee said. "I worry about the weather in spring time will make us forget about the issue. Our ability to grow the economy relies on electricity. I think it's really important the interest you show tonight continues."

bholbrook@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413