Utilities respond to threat of severe storms

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — From trimming trees to building new transmission lines and deploying the latest technology, utilities throughout New England say they're working to protect their infrastructure against the growing threat of severe storms and cyberattacks.

National Grid said it's investing more than $2.5 billion annually in infrastructure across Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York to ensure reliability during storms.

Emera Maine spent about $200 million on two projects in the last decade, building new transmission lines and substations in Maine.

The United Illuminating Company plans to spend $100 million over eight years trimming and removing trees under its lines in Connecticut. It's studying potentially raising or relocating coastal substations prone to flooding, following Hurricane Irene, which hit the Northeast in 2011, and Superstorm Sandy, which struck 14 months later.

"It was the major events, Irene and Sandy, that really opened everybody's eyes," said Joseph Thomas, vice president for electric system operations at United Illuminating. "We needed to do something different."

Scott Aaronson, a senior director at the Edison Electric Institute, said the sector is working closely together to face threats, but also recognizes the protections put into place won't be perfect.

"Things are going to go wrong," he said. "A lot of investments are happening that are incredibly useful toward making sure the bad days don't become catastrophic ones."

Most utilities appear to be investing to guard against cyberattacks, but company officials would only speak generally about them. Liberty Utilities in New Hampshire said it improved its remote communications systems, computer systems and physical security.

Utilities are raising rates to pay for infrastructure improvements. Central Maine Power Company said the changes benefit the customers, so the costs get passed on.

Utilities say they'll continue modernizing, but funding can be an issue.

"There's a lot more we can do, and will do as we figure out how to budget it," Christine Hallquist, chief executive officer of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, said in a statement.

The cooperative built a more stable line to serve the hardest to access areas of the system this year. It buried about 2.5 miles of overhead line underground in the mountains, Hallquist said. She said there were no rate increases; the cooperative received federal grants.

In urban areas of Portland, Maine, Central Maine Power Company has some underground lines, but the company says it's impractical and too expensive to bury many more. The cost is three to 10 times that of overhead construction and the presence of ledge makes it difficult to build, said Gail Rice, a spokeswoman.

Thomas, of United Illuminating, said, "Would everybody like to rebuild the entire system and make it brand new and put it all underground? Yes. But that's too cost prohibitive. The key thing is to properly identify where to spend money."

In New Hampshire, Eversource is installing new pole-top devices so control center operators can reroute power around trouble spots. It installed 84 devices in 2014 when the program launched and more than 200 in 2015. It's planning to spend $14 million to continue adding them in 2016.

Green Mountain Power in Vermont is moving lines out of wooded areas and areas susceptible to flooding. National Grid is installing flood barriers and buying additional pumps, plugs and generators for 13 substations in Massachusetts and 12 substations in Rhode Island.

Utilities must strike a balance between providing reliable, while also affordable, electricity, said Aaronson, of the Edison Electric Institute. He said the partnership as a sector, and with the government, is "on the right track" toward protecting infrastructure.


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