Photo by Mark Rudnicki.

With the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, Connecticut residents have become all too familiar with lengthy power outages. While strong winds, heavy precipitation and high tides are the most notable features of such events, 90 percent of Connecticut’s storm-related power outages are caused by falling trees and limbs. Connecticut is the fourth most densely populated state and 75 percent of its land covered by trees; hence, Connecticut’s power outages tend to be widespread, affecting thousands of homes and businesses.

Eversource Energy and UConn have teamed up to address this issue and others in an effort to reduce the severity, duration and frequency of outages across the state and in neighboring communities. In a unique partnership, the Eversource Energy Center was established in 2015 to facilitate collaboration by Eversource managers and UConn researchers to identify risks and develop strategies to help ensure the protection and resiliency of the power grid.

The Eversource Energy Center recently hosted a forum for faculty from a range of disciplines, including natural resources management, engineering and business. Ammanouil Anagnostou, Northeast Utilities Endowed Chair Professor in Environmental Engineering and director of the new center, opened the forum, announcing that the center is seeking research proposals to support the delivery of reliable power during storms. Eversource managers representing vegetation management, engineering and system resiliency discussed the challenges posed by extreme weather and announced that they will invest nearly $1 million to fund six research projects. The selected projects will begin in fall 2016 and continue through December 2017, with the prospect of financing additional research after this time.

A 3D point cloud created from a laser scanner with a ground-based point-of-view. Image by Jason Parent.

A 3D point cloud created from a laser scanner with a ground-based point-of-view. Image by Jason Parent.

Several UConn faculty members presented their research and shared proposals with Eversource management, with the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources presenting the benefits of studying tree biomechanics and roadside management; using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) for mapping; and anticipating the effects of climate change to alleviate problems associated with inclement weather.

Some UConn faculty have already been applying their expertise in these areas to discover ways to increase the dependability of the power grid. Stormwise, an interdisciplinary collaboration begun in 2011 between UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources and School of Engineering and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, is developing a model to identify  areas vulnerable to storm damage that may result in widespread outages. John Volin, professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) and Associate Director of the Eversource Energy Center, and Tom Worthley, associate extension professor, presented research showing that a reduction in power disruptions can be achieved through a “right tree, right place” approach. This method involves managing roadsides through maintaining trees that are healthy and “wind firm,” having been allowed room to grow wider and adapt to the elements. By removing unsuitable trees and thinning roadside forests, the result will be the growth of broad and robust trees along roadways that are less likely to suffer damage in storms, protecting power lines and increasing safety for drivers. This foresight can be used to create an “amphitheater” effect, with low trees being closest to the road, below power lines, and larger trees further back, preserving the beauty of Connecticut’s forested roads.

Jason Parent, assistant research professor in NRE, spoke on how LiDAR, a laser surveying tool can provide useful means to achieve this sophisticated level of roadside management with high-resolution maps showing detail at the level of individual trees and  utility poles. These data can be used to determine the progress of vegetation management and study the power grid infrastructure. While LiDAR can be deployed to compile information from individual trees and poles, it can also be used to aggregate these data, revealing information about the behavior of forests or leading to improvements in the construction of electrical poles. These applications of LiDAR replace visual identification of potential problems, saving crews and researchers time and money, and facilitate planning for ongoing management and response to weather events.

Map showing proximity trees (red) tall enough to strike power lines (black lines). Image by Jason Parent.

Map showing proximity trees (red) tall enough to strike power lines (black lines). Image by Jason Parent.

Another area addressed by Stormwise is the human dimension: the social and cultural significance of trees in urban, suburban and rural settings and how people respond to roadside tree and forest management. Anita Morzillo, assistant professor in NRE, presented information on how power outages and the assignment of blame for their duration are reported in the media. She has found that members of the public tend to blame the utility companies, while the utility companies point out that it’s the trees that cause most of the outages. It will be necessary to educate the public on the benefits of vegetation management, while managing the roadsides in an aesthetically sensitive manner as possible. Though many of these endeavors strive to solve challenges that are specific to Connecticut and its abundant forests, this research may lead to discoveries to improve the delivery of electricity around the world.

Says John Volin, “The Eversource Energy Center is a truly unique partnership between industry and academia that helps to facilitate the development of science and technology-based solutions, such as storm damage forecasting and tree and forest roadside management, with the ultimate goal to ensure reliable power in the face of severe storm events. An exciting aspect of the center is that it fosters the development of interdisciplinary teams that include faculty and students with expertise in natural resources, engineering and business in partnership with utility professionals to tackle these complex solutions.”

UConn offers Eversource Energy a breadth of scientific knowledge and this partnership reveals how educational institutions using advanced technologies can be utilized to better serve consumers and the environment.

By Jason M. Sheldon