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Tree-Targeting UI Buys $15K Of Green PR

by Paul Bass | Mar 19, 2014 3:49 pm

(23) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: City Hall, Environment

The United Illuminating Company, which plans to destroy hundreds of trees throughout New Haven’s neighborhoods, will give the city a $15,000 check to send teens door-to-door to promote energy conservation.

Patrick McDonnell, UI’s director of conservation and load management, said he doesn’t see a connection between those two facts.

He said that at a City Hall press conference Wednesday afternoon, where UI announced its gift to the city to fund a New Haven “Youth Conservation Initiative.” Also at the press conference, Mayor Toni Harp signed an agreement with a clean-energy outfit to have city government purchase 20 percent of its electricity from “clean, renewable energy sources” and slash energy consumption in government buildings by 20 percent by 2018.

UI has earned the rage of New Haven and Hamden environmentalists lately with a plan to remove all trees within eight feet of its power lines—which could end up destroying an estimated half of all trees in the city. (Click here to read the plan.) The utility argues it needs to do that to prevent future outages in major storms. Critics call the plan an environmentally devastating overreaction; some argue it makes more sense to bury power lines, while others argue nature should be left alone to complete a natural pruning process. A public outcry led the utility to put the plan on hold while it negotiates with regulators.

The $15,000 UI grant will enable the Harp administration to hire 10 high-schoolers and two college supervisors to work part-time this summer knocking on doors in low- and moderate-income city neighborhoods. They will promote UI conservation programs like energy audits and weatherization. They’ll earn $8.25 an hour for up to 25 hours a week, and receive free new bikes, to do the work.

Paul Bass Photo Five of those students spoke at Wednesday’s press conference. Some of them, like Hillhouse students Arif Singh (second from left) and Michael Blake (at center), have through an ecology club organized volunteer recycling efforts at their schools. (Also pictured: Dariel Cardona of Wilbur Cross High School, far left; and Hillhouse’s Colby Jenkins and Cooperative Arts & Humanities School’s Kayla Driffin at right.)

McDonnell was asked if he believes the students’ efforts would outweigh the energy-conservation loss to be caused by all the all the tearing down of trees in city neighborhoods.

“I don’t know that UI is tearing down all the trees in the neighborhoods,” McDonnell responded. “Last I saw that proposal was being modified.” (Click on the video at the top of the story to watch his full answer.)

He called that issue separate from the teen outreach program announced wednesday. “We want to focus on energy conservation in the homes. So much energy leaks out of homes.”

Do trees help that energy stay inside? he was asked.

He conceded that trees “do provide shading” for homes in the summer. “But in the winter they certainly don’t,” he said. He said the utility will discuss the benefits of tree canopies versus the costs of power outages with state legislators and regulators.

“We’ve lived through some serious weather events recently,” he said. “They’ve had a dramatic impact on trees falling down.”

Mayor Harp (pictured), meanwhile, signed an agreement with the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority containing the two 20 percent pledges. The pledges build on efforts city government made over the past decade to cut energy usage in municipal buildings and to promote the installation of fuel cells and solar panels both in public and in private facilities.

“Our goal is a bold one,” Harp said.

Robert Wall, outreach point person for the clean energy group, called New Haven a statewide green pioneer in those areas, among the first municipalities to make and keep similar pledges with his agency’s predecessor, the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund. It has already succeeded once in meeting a 20 percent goal for relying on renewable energy sources. (Read about that here.)

Giovanni Zinn, the city engineering department’s green-energy point person on projects from fuel cells to solar-powered library and school buildings to LED streetlights, said the city already purchases about 13 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

Much of the city’s energy-saving progress occurred under the direction of former Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts. Click on the video and on this article for details on how he went about it.

City of New Haven

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posted by: robn on March 19, 2014  6:03pm

UI should be aware that destroying other peoples property may provoke those people into destroying UIs property.

posted by: HewNaven on March 19, 2014  6:06pm

Aside from the obvious connection between the two events, $15,000 is a ‘drop in the bucket’ for UI. They could easily afford to give 10x that amount.

It’s also extremely hypocritical to ask your customers to conserve energy while you’re simultaneously FORCING them to spend more for energy by clear-cutting trees that already shade their homes, trees that already act as energy conservators.

And, as arborists and urban foresters, and other experts have already pointed out, given all the recent episodes of extreme weather (i.e. hurricanes, blizzards, etc.) our trees are already being ‘pruned’ with each passing storm. There’s no need to do what UI is saying needs to be done to trees.

Since UI won’t accept what these experts are telling them, there remains the possibility that they plan to intentionally remove trees just so customer’s spend more for energy in the Summer months, when typically energy savings are greatest, and UI profits are lowest.

$15,000 is a joke. UI could potentially reap hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating shade trees in front of our homes. And, they want to shut us all up for $15,000…
Sorry, UI. You can’t try to buy our common sense.

posted by: Bradley on March 19, 2014  7:26pm

Actually,trees (particularly conifers) reduce wind speed and thus heating demand in the winter.

posted by: fk on March 19, 2014  8:17pm

I think we should take their money and consider this a separate issue from the tree cutting.

We do need to fight the tree cutting with everything we have.  Streets without trees are very ugly indeed.  If you go to the top of East Rock in the summer it is clear that New Haven has a lot of trees.  it is beautiful because of the trees and we cannot allow anybody to destroy this! 
Pruning by trained arborists and clear cutting are two completely different things.  Careful pruning will take care of most of the risk while keeping our city livable.  The trees have been neglected for a long time.  I see wires that are all tangled in the tree branches and have been that way for years.  This is neglect and does not require clear cutting to fix.  UI has very high profits and can afford to spend the money on maintenance.

posted by: romby on March 19, 2014  8:26pm

That bar graph is irking me.

If you really want to show a 10% change the axis should be at zero not $52,000.

posted by: HappyinNH on March 19, 2014  8:40pm

This article is a great example of inflammatory journalism and it has achieved its purpose by generating emotional and uninformed comments.

Nice opportunity for the students. The residents that they help will benefit, too.

Maybe UI should take their $15,000 and spend it someplace where people appreciate it.

posted by: David S Baker on March 19, 2014  9:02pm

Perhaps UI should just tell people they have to pay out of pocket for the arborist and linemen when trees on their property knock down power lines?  Take the liability and you can keep the trees.  Win-win. 

@HewNaven
I dig your shade conspiracy, but summer is when UI cleans up.  Demand on the grid is at it’s peak.  They even pay people with 250KW and up generators to supplement the grid at times.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on March 19, 2014  10:03pm

Paul,

The phrase “environmentalist” is limiting when referring to the sum of people who are upset with the potential destruction of the tree canopy.

Any neighbor who cares about their individual quality of life would likely be upset if the healthy tree in front of their home was felled. 

UI’s threat to the tree canopy touches every neighbor in New Haven.

posted by: HewNaven on March 20, 2014  6:12am

@HewNaven
I dig your shade conspiracy, but summer is when UI cleans up. Demand on the
grid is at it’s peak. They even pay people with 250KW and up generators to
supplement the grid at times.

Well, the possibility remains that UI is ‘drunk at the wheel’ and is intentionally trying to crash the grid during Summer months, since removing trees can only increase demand.

posted by: fk on March 20, 2014  7:01am

We are talking about the “tree line” in most cases here so this seems to be a more complicated issue than homeowners paying to take care of “their” trees. 
Technically, the homeowner owns the property to the curb in most cases but the utilities and the city have right of ways here so that the property owner really is very limited as to what he can do with this strip of land.  The public gets far more use from this strip of land than the property owner does.
To suggest that the homeowner pay to trim the trees and maintain the power lines is absurd and insulting, especially when we are paying some of the highest electrical rates in the country.  Look at your electric bill.  We pay more for distribution than we pay for generation!  We pay more for distribution than people in other parts of the country pay for distribution and generation combined.  If UI cannot maintain their distribution network properly when they are getting paid so much already, something is seriously wrong! 
If anybody thinks that homeowners should pay to keep the tree line clear for UI, I suggest that UI should be paying the properties owners rent for use of the right of way.

posted by: fk on March 20, 2014  7:33am

Robn,
Correct me if I a wrong, but I believe that the trees in the tree line are public property and as such, should be the concern of the public. 
Destroying UI property would be wrong and wouldn’t serve the public interest, but destroying UI might be a better option.
Maybe we should take over UI property in New Haven by eminent domain and create our own utility.  We could have less expensive power like Wallingford does and we could protect our own interests, keeping New Haven looking like New Haven instead of a wasteland controlled by UI.

posted by: robn on March 20, 2014  8:16am

FK,

I’m not sure about the mid 20th century tracts in New Haven, but in most of the older neighborhoods surrounding downtown private property lines are at the line where ones lawn meets the sidewalk. Apart from trees, sidewalks and the outer grasstrip are the legal responsibility of an adjacent homeowner to care for. I believe that one can apply to the tree warden to have a private arborist care for trees if one wants.
My intention was to say that the public trees are public property with special legal interest granted to adjacent homeowners. The trees in no way belong to UI. UI has a contractual relationship with the public in which they provide electrical service and as part of the deal, they’re allowed reasonable trimming to prevent line damage. Whats being discussed right now is the definition of “reasonable”. I find clear cutting, and 8 clearance cutting to be incredibly unreasonable and I would think that towns all over the US agree with that sentiment.

As I noted in an earlier thread…UI’s market cap is about $2.1B, so to do a hostile takeover, each of the 325,000 ratepayers would have to pay $3,300 apiece.

posted by: fk on March 20, 2014  9:02am

Robn,

Thanks for the quick math.  I know that it’s not that simple but I would certainly be willing to pay $3300 to know that UI was out of my life.  This could be paid for through bonding and the money we would save on our electric bills would probably more than offset the cost.  In any case, we would have better control of our property and our interests.

posted by: Billy on March 20, 2014  10:48am

Is there a central organizing body to get residents together to resist UI’s deforestation plan? The Garden Club of New Haven has a great “Actions You Can Take” resource on their website: http://www.gardenclubofnewhaven.org/actions-you-can-take.html Is there any coordinated effort beyond that to organize and do outreach throughout the city (to IMPLEMENT the “actions”)? I agree with Ben B. that the issue touches all of us.  A broad-based coalition can be formed to take on UI…and win!

posted by: fk on March 20, 2014  11:29am

I think that it would be a great idea to use the students who will be a part of this program to also inform the public about UI’s deforestation plan.  Since they will be going door to door anyway, and since preserving the trees is crucial to the environment and our quality of life, I think it would be irresponsible to exclude this information from the presentation.

posted by: Stephen Harris on March 20, 2014  12:51pm

Just for the record. I’ve been living here since 1998 and my power has NEVER gone out.

Who’s running the show at UI? Cut down half the trees?! What a stupid (look up the definition) thing to do.

posted by: PH on March 20, 2014  1:20pm

How about the city funds the teens as it is in the city’s interest to decrease energy costs for everyone and in exchange UI takes their tree massacring plans elsewhere?  That’s a deal I can support.  You can even raise my taxes $1 to contribute to the effort.  I don’t want my city to look anything like the destruction that they are wreaking on I-91.

posted by: Lisa on March 20, 2014  1:43pm

@Stephen Harris, I’ve lived in New Haven all of my life (much longer than 1998)  and I have lost power once.  Just once.  And it was so long ago ( the 1980’s) I can’t even remember the reason.  It was not related to snow, as it was summer time.  And it wasn’t the tornado that had touched down in Hamden.  But my point is, I have lived through hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards, and none of these caused a power outage.  So I agree.  Who at UI is advising otherwise?  And why?

posted by: Powers on March 20, 2014  4:15pm

So UI wants to pay teens to lecture me about energy conservation while making my neighborhood much less attractive by tearing down HALF of my trees?  I’ve already seen what they’re capable of regarding property destruction; a tree directly in front of my house is now a 10-foot-high stump and an eyesore because it was supposedly a danger to wires.  I would attach a picture if I could.  This proposal is outrageous and should be stopped by city government and the citizens of this city.  I would love to know how to help prevent this from happening. Anyone have any advice/information?

posted by: Josiah Brown on March 20, 2014  4:57pm

This Courant editorial may be of interest:
http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/editorials/hc-ed-tree-trimming-without-arborcide-to-protect-t-20140319,0,5005033.story

Also, readers may be interested in the following April 2012 New York Times opinion piece by Jim Robbins, on “Why Trees Matter”:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/12/opinion/why-trees-matter.html

An excerpt:

“Trees are nature’s water filters, capable of cleaning up the most toxic wastes, including explosives, solvents and organic wastes, largely through a dense community of microbes around the tree’s roots that clean water in exchange for nutrients, a process known as phytoremediation. Tree leaves also filter air pollution. A 2008 study by researchers at Columbia University found that more trees in urban neighborhoods correlate with a lower incidence of asthma.
In Japan, researchers have long studied what they call ‘forest bathing.’ A walk in the woods, they say, reduces the level of stress chemicals in the body and increases natural killer cells in the immune system, which fight tumors and viruses. Studies in inner cities show that anxiety, depression and even crime are lower in a landscaped environment.”

posted by: Bradley on March 20, 2014  8:23pm

I think its ironic that (1) New Haven and other cities experience fewer outages than rural areas (like a couple of commentators, I’ve lost power for less than hour in the 25 years I’ve lived in New Haven), (2) when there are storms, power is generally restored more quickly in urban areas, in part due to a sensible UI policy of seeking to maximize the number of folks who have their power restored, given finite staff and other resources, and (3) the impact of the tree-cutting program will be most pronounced in urban areas due to small and in some cases non- existent front yards.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on March 21, 2014  8:17am

The only time power went out on State Street in the last 8 years was during Irene. A tree fell on the lines that UI and the City had been notified was leaning for years. Photos were posted on SeeClickFix and nothing was done.

There are smarter ways to prevent outages. It starts with listening to citizens before the problem occurs.

posted by: ElmCitizen on March 21, 2014  1:50pm

Sadly coming to this late in the conversation.
I don’t support extreme tree trimming. I also don’t support mass hysteria over power outages and conspiracy theory against any and all. I have actually heard the presentation from UI in a town meeting.

Consider:
- A utility that came under serious fire for outages during extreme weather with a mandate to fix it.
- Populated suburbs hit hard (more so than urban areas)
- Tree assessment is being coordinated in many places with a community assessment to know where at-risk groups and key infrastructure are. The issue is not just power, but access to services and support in emergency. UI fields a lot of calls from people that needs social services, especially emergency.
- UI people might be neighbors, friends and relatives. Many do feel a responsibility to do more than mitigate company risk.
- City/Town and other utilities AT& T, Comcast etc have shared responsibility for tree/pole management, but with limited accountability
it seems
- Engineers working on a risk reduction plan. This extremeness of the plan has highlighted the risks and the tradeoff. Trees = outages. Or not.
- 10 year plan in accordance with tree wardens
- Property owners can oppose, with out recourse
-Undergrounding prohibitively expensive in most places. I called the customer service line 1 800 WISE USE and they provided more info.

I am glad we are standing up for the trees, but I would like to see more thoughtful conversation all around. I think that the message could have been communicate with more finesse. This is where it fell down to start. BenBerkowitz said it best, engage communities first.

We choose to live in New England - with trees, extreme weather, seasons, and cost factors like limited transport and infrastructure. It’s stupid to criminalize everyone in the private sector an pooh pooh every effort because one piece is misleading. Stand up and shout, but this piece didn’t add to positive discourse in my mind.

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