The Sermon Underground

Thomas MacMillan PhotoJon-Jay Tilsen delivered the following (here excerpted) sermon—tying the weekly Bible portion to the current public discussion over whether to bury power lines or cut down trees—this past Saturday at Westville’s Congregation Beth-El Keser Israel, where he serves as rabbi. Click here for a background story on the subject in the Independent.

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“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring to you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Exodus 27:20).

Parashat Tetsave (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10 read on Feb. 8) is a continuation of the detailed description of the construction of the Tabernacle, its furnishings and accessories, and the accouterments and conduct of its servants. This may be understood in the larger context of imagining the society to be built in the Land of Israel, a society constructed from law, lore, and tradition and revealed and conveyed in the Torah and as understood through the experience of servitude in Egypt and the historical memory of the Patriarchal Age. ...

The notion of building a better future society through imagination and dedication, while so real for us today with the rebuilding of the Jewish Commonwealth in the Land of Israel, also inevitably trains us to think the same way about our local communities, even here in exile in New Haven.

I would like to address for a few moments a local contemporary issue, that has to do with the physical construction of our local communities.  If Aharon the Kohen Gadol had to be concerned with the quality of the oil used to illuminate the Tabernacle, then perhaps we as leaders of Greater New Haven may rightly be concerned with the nuts and bolts construction of our town, for while perhaps not the dwelling place of the Almighty, it is our own dwelling place, at least temporarily.

Area residents complain that United Illuminating’s $100 million plan for tree removal is tantamount to deforestation.  The “Elm City” and Hamden, East Haven and West Haven enjoy tree-lined neighborhoods, a source of beauty and pride.  We want our trees.
But the electric company is mandated to provide reliable and affordable energy, and has to cut and trim trees to prevent major power outages.  Vegetation is the single greatest factor in power outages, especially when combined with severe storms.  UI does more “gardening” in some yards than the homeowner does.
The cost of outages is substantial: missed work and commerce, hotel bills for residents fleeing cold and dark homes, spoiled food, exploded pipes, purchase of private back-up generators (costing anywhere from $500 to $20,000 per household), extended school years.  When commerce slows, tax revenues decline.

An insecure electric grid makes our area less desirable as a place to live and develop high-tech and other businesses.  It increases the cost of living here and reduces the value of our property.  Most costs fall upon our residents and business owners, not on the utility companies.  We want our electricity, and we want it secure and affordable.
It is time to implement a project of Underground Electric Line Management (“Underground ELM”), of burying our electric and communications cables in New Haven and surrounding areas.  I am referring to the local powerlines in your neighborhood, the ones on the poles along the curb in front of your house and from the pole to your house, and not the giant transmission lines, which are a different issue.

Undergrounding improves reliability, allows us to keep our trees, and looks better.  Undergrounding improves safety by removing poles that are a hazard to cars, and by hiding wires that are a hazard to people using ladders.  The news media reported recently on fatalities that occurred when cars crashed into poles, a pole falling on a stroller killing a baby, and a hapless homeowner touching the “third rail” while fixing his gutter.  The removal of poles will also open a few additional parking spaces or enable the installation of dedicated separate bike paths or full-width sidewalks.  It will improve visibility at corners.  In the longer run, undergrounding reduces the traffic-blocking utility trucks working on the poles and trimming the trees.
A New Haven Area project of undergrounding would provide ongoing work to our local electric workers for a decade, and longer when implementation follows elsewhere in the state.  Keeping skilled workers busy in Connecticut is better than the current plan of flying electrical workers in from Canada or Texas to repair storm damage, because the jobs will be local and the workers available for immediate deployment.  They can spend most of their time undergrounding, and then be available for those occasional big storms. 

Data from the past two decades shows that undergrounding reduces the incidence of power outages.  This may be most obvious to us, as recent years have shown how ice storms and hurricanes can cause vast damage to the above-ground grid.  While the repair time increases with undergrounding, the single biggest problem in our area has been the vast extent of outages at one time due to storms.  Undergrounding reduces this single outlying factor.  One of our biggest problems in our system is that too many lines can go down at the same time.  Each segment that is buried is one less segment vulnerable to major storms and one less segment to fix when the big one hits.  With climate change, we might be facing even more storms, as well as unprecedented heat waves – all of which play havoc on exposed wiring systems.

The New Haven Independent reported (5 Feb 2014) that before last week’s storm, United Illuminating said “the utility expects 10,000 customers to lose power in Wednesday’s storms.”  If our lines had been underground, that number would have been proportionally lower.  And if the storm proved less severe and the outages did not occur, we would have paid for much of it anyway to the extent that the power company prepared for it.  All of that expense could be averted.

In contrast, the gas company (hey it is under the same ownership!) manages to dig up the streets and repair gas problems rather quickly, because the rate of failure is relatively constant; but the electric failures come as huge widely distributed multiple small failures.  Undergrounding makes the electric lines more like the gas lines or water lines in that respect.

If we are going to trim our urban trees, it should be for public safety and the needs of the trees, not based on the location of power lines, and not paid by utility customers.  Trees have an honored place in our law and tradition.  Unlike our neighbors, we celebrate our holidays (such as Tu BeShevat) by planting trees (and not by chopping them down).  Our law prohibits the destruction of trees (the mitzva bal tashhit) even in the extenuating circumstances of battle, and is generalized to a prohibition against needless destruction of trees and other natural features.  The reforestation of the Land of Israel undertaken by the Jewish National Fund since its establishment in 1901 and by other organizations has been a significant success, although much more remains to be accomplished.
The time has come for Underground ELM, as we are forced to rebuild our urban roads and power lines, which have reached or exceeded their lifespan.  Making our grid “smart” by using new technology will make it more secure and less expensive to operate.   It will also include more possibilities for distributed generation, a topic which we have addressed for example in our discussions of rooftop solar electric generation.

And now is the time to install high-speed data cables in our dense residential areas.  While we are at it, we need high-speed fiber optic cables so that we can reach the standards of more advanced nations such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Romania, Lithuania, Japan, Latvia, Estonia, and Uruguay, or even of select US cities such as Chattanooga, all of which have internet far, far better than New Haven.  You may have seen the New York Times article a few days ago that pointed out that Chattanooga’s internet speed is 50 times that of ours.  New Haven’s brilliant scientists and businesspeople need high speed to every home in our neighborhoods – that makes New Haven more attractive for the most ambitious and hard-working people.

Let us improve and not just replace our infrastructure.  Even if the roads are impassible during a storm, we should still be able to learn, work, shop and communicate in heated and lighted homes.  As the national economy undergoes a transformation, secure power and data transmission are crucial to economic success.
We can share the cost of Underground ELM among homeowners, utility customers, electric and telecommunication companies and the state.  Everyone benefits.  Property owners can pay a small portion upfront on a per-foot basis and amortize a small portion in their utility bills.  All utility customers can share the cost through a few cents added to their bills.  As a multi-year project, costs will be spread over time, and utility company experts will be able to manage it in the smartest and most efficient way.  Give homeowners some leeway about timing and payment options.  Other cities and towns have done this already, and we can learn from their mistakes and successes.
Rural and suburban residents should gladly help promote a more secure grid, since the scope of major outages caused by downed lines will be reduced and more resources will be available to restore their power when the next storm hits.  If half of New Haven’s lines were underground, then during that last big outage, half of the workers who were in New Haven restoring power could have been deployed to Woodbridge.  It is only fair for rural and suburban residents to share the cost, as urban electric users historically have heavily subsidized rural and suburban users through the state-regulated price structure.  Let the state provide tax credits to homeowners to partially cover their up-front installation expense, as undergrounding makes the state a better place to live, and reliable power improves commerce and state income.

A minimalist program would be to simply offer assistance to homeowners and building owners in selected high-density areas in undergrounding the lines from the curb to their homes or buildings.  In the adjacent BEKI neighborhoods (Westville, Edgewood, Beaver Hill, Valley), a typical run from the street to the house is 60 feet, and most often two houses have connections just twenty feet apart.  Everything costs more in Connecticut, so assume the cost of trenching to be $1,200 per house, which could either be a fixed number or a per-trench-foot number.  Some communities created voluntary programs to allow homeowners (or 2 or 3 neighbors) to volunteer for undergrounding the line to their home, paying for example $900 up front, and then adding $5 a month to their electric bill for the next five years to pay the rest.  The state then offers a 50% property tax credit on that $900 so the homeowner pays just $450 upfront.

Once two or three or four adjacent homes have undergrounded their lines, the utility company would then be obliged to underground the lines along the street, within some period of months or years, at “their” expense, which itself would be recovered through the rate and tax structure and through payments from the data cable or phone companies.  That is a minimalist program.  A larger program could simply be more aggressive in incentives and timetables, and could include planning to underground streets as they are rebuilt periodically, independent of the homeowner’s choice.  Undergrounding could also be made a requirement for renovations over $50,000 or sales over a certain figure, or with some other condition, to insure it occurs over time in a way that is manageable for our residents.
Undergrounding costs more than overhead wires, but it costs even more to have an unreliable system and to remove our trees.  We run our natural gas lines under the streets and under our yards, even though it costs a lot more than it would to just have above-ground gas pipes.  We underground our sewage conduits even though it would cost less to just let it run down the gutters.  We pave our streets even though it would be less expensive to just cover them with gravel. We fix our potholes – well, we don’t, so forget that one.  The point is that we have to look at the “real” cost and the “total” cost of these systems, and not just how much of the cost gets reflected in the utility bill itself.

Beyond the issues of reliability, tree preservation and safety, and the associated improvements in data communication, undergrounding has another major advantage:  it looks a lot nicer.  People who come from places that have already buried their utilities are startled by the backward and unsightly appearance of our nicest neighborhoods.  If we wish to take pride in our community, it requires us to make it look nicer.  The above-ground utility infrastructure is one of the ugliest aspects of the urban landscape.

Underground ELM is an investment in our homes, cities and state—and we can begin enjoying the benefits immediately.  Let the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority work with the power companies, telecommunications companies, electrical workers and city planners to develop and implement a program to mandate or encourage undergrounding in New Haven and other high-density areas, so that we can save some of our trees, reduce tree and pole maintenance, enhance system reliability and beautify our neighborhoods.  Let’s start with New Haven and its neighbors so the rest of the state can be inspired by our success and learn from our experience.
The mishkan (Tabernacle) used during our period of wandering was intended to be, and was in fact, a temporary structure, to serve until the national home was established in the Land of Israel.  Nevertheless, it was created through a great deal of planning, deliberation, labor and love, in a most exquisite and detailed manner.  So, too, our place in New Haven is surely temporary, but nevertheless we must invest in it to make it a suitable dwelling place here and now and into the next generation. 

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posted by: robn on February 10, 2014  4:46pm

“...exile in New Haven.”

posted by: EPDP on February 10, 2014  8:14pm

The Rabbi should be commended for this sermon.  You can see that he cares deeply for his congregants and the residents of the City of New Haven. The Rabbi clearly wants to make New Haven a better place for all of its citizens, in the spirit of the Mishkan, the “dwelling place of the Almighty.”  The Biblical portion that the Rabbi quotes also makes reference to the animal sacrifices that were made in the desert of lambs, rams, and bulls.  I would argue that in the spirit of nature and the agrarian society in which all humans evolved, New Haven should allow its citizens the right to keep certain farm animals and livestock, under strict health regulations.  This would encourage citizens to rely less on factory raised animals who are injected with all sorts of drugs and hormones and subjected to inhumane treatment and inhumane slaughter. Citizens of New Haven would eat healthier.  There would be less pollution from trucks transporting meat all over the country. New Haven must take the lead. Towns like Woodbridge and Bethany should set aside open space to encourage local farming and raising livestock. Think of all the land that is currently wasted in these towns on golf courses and useless chemically fed lawns. We need to come together as a community, just as the Jewish people did in the desert, and work together to make the City of New Haven, and the surrounding area, a dwelling place of the Almighty.

posted by: citoyen on February 11, 2014  12:49am

“The notion of building a better future society through imagination and dedication.”