A reaffirmed commitment of $14 million to the Eversource Energy Center at UConn will enable researchers to continue and expand the efforts of the Stormwise program, led by researchers from the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. Eversource Energy and UConn recently announced the extension of their joint partnership, with an “eye toward making Connecticut a national leader in clean energy.”
Stormwise works to confront the challenges posed by trees that can cause power outages.
“It will allow us to continue doing this research and expand it,” says Robert (Bob) Fahey, associate director of the Eversource Energy Center and Cloutier Professor in Forestry in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.
“Stormwise is a cornerstone activity of the Eversource Energy Center that goes side-by-side with developing a robust Outage Prediction Model aimed at enhancing energy infrastructure resilience to storms,” says Emmanouil Anagnostou, director of the Eversource Energy Center and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Stormwise started following a series of three major storms between 2011 and 2012: the infamous October snow storm, Hurricane Irene, and Superstorm Sandy. These storms devastated Connecticut’s power system and left thousands without power for days. In response, the state established the Vegetation Management Task Force which morphed into the Stormwise project.
The history of its land makes Connecticut particularly vulnerable to outages caused by downed trees. Before European colonization, the Northeast was a heavily forested area. By the early 1800s, settlers had cleared more than half the forest to accommodate agricultural operations. As industry became more prevalent than agriculture in the area, many farms were abandoned. This allowed forests to regrow in unused fields around the same time electric lines were being installed in the early 20th century.
Because the powerlines were installed when the forest was young, as the forest grew, it started causing issues for the electrical infrastructure that was installed without considering the future impact of larger trees.
Now those impacts have come to bear on the extent of power outages following storm events. In many areas, because the forest is overcrowded, the trees are weaker and stressed. This means they are more likely to break or be uprooted during a storm.
“It’s not an engineering problem you have, it’s a forest management problem,” Forestry Stewardship Associate Extension Professor Tom Worthley says.
The Stormwise team uses the power of remote sensing technology to inform Eversource’s decisions regarding vegetation management. The vegetation management model looks at the characteristics and health of vegetation near powerlines to identify areas that might be vulnerable to an outage caused by vegetation. Before this effort, no map existed showing the precise locations of all the Eversource powerlines in the state.
“Combining those pieces of information allows us to help Eversource prioritize where to invest in vegetation management and what type of vegetation management to do,” Fahey says.
Stormwise is also now tracking the location of events such as gypsy moth infestations, pathogen outbreaks, or storm damage. This provides the model with even more information to bolster its predictive power.
Currently, Eversource’s main strategy for vegetation management is trimming trees next to powerlines every few years. Management beyond the powerline zone is also critical, since trees in those areas can fall and have an impact on utilities.
Stormwise is helping the energy leader address how to expand the scope of their operations beyond the narrow strip of land right next to powerlines, which requires collaboration and partnerships like those with towns, the state, and induvial property owners.
Stormwise is helping Eversource foster the necessary connections to demonstrate the benefits of implementing proactive forest management practices that make the forest system stronger as a whole. The program’s three demonstration sites, including one in the UConn Forest, have performed well in storm conditions and no trees have fallen. Fahey and the Stormwise team measure the trees’ biomechanical characteristics to determine how they react in different weather conditions.
“The trees in our sites have responded in a way that should make them less susceptible to wind as compared to trees in untreated forests,” Fahey says. “This type of preventative management would have a positive effect if applied by considering the trees’ biomechanical response.”
This work is becoming increasingly important as climate change is making storms more frequent and intense.
“We’re confronting a situation in the environment nobody’s had to deal with before,” Worthley says. “We’re taking what we know and what we can learn and trying to make the best interpretation we can.”
This project has the potential to extend beyond working on powerlines and into other parts of infrastructure, such as roadways.
“We’re helping to develop a forest system more broadly in Connecticut that is resilient to climate change and doesn’t interfere with human infrastructure,” Fahey says. “It’s not just powerlines.”
The Stormwise team also includes a group of social scientists who focus on communicating with the community. One of the largest misconceptions they face, Fahey says, is that cutting trees down is inherently negative. The team works to help people understand how cutting down some trees can help strengthen the forest.
The new investment from Eversource will also allow the Eversource Energy Center to continue its support for UConn’s weather and outage prediction models, offshore wind energy, expand its flood early warning system, and provide analytical support for managing the risks of extreme weather and high levels of penetration of intermittent renewable energy generation; as well as societal data to ensure long-term sustainability and equity in energy distribution. Through the new support, the Center will provide professional education to Eversource engineers through UConn’s Power Grid Modernization Graduate Certificate Program, and engage underrepresented minority undergraduate students in sustainable energy research.
The Eversource Energy Center at the University of Connecticut is a partnership between New England’s largest energy provider and the School of Engineering; the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources; and the School of Business, located in the Innovation Partnership Building at UConn Tech Park. The partnership, established in 2015, is dedicated to using cutting-edge research to solve real-world challenges where weather, security, and energy intersect.
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