After two major storms wracked the state's power supply over the last three months, a Connecticut Light & Power executive assessed challenges facing the utility -- which has been harshly criticized locally and statewide -- during a speech Friday to the Westport Sunrise Rotary Club.

"The second storm, Alfred, gave us a lot of problems with our transmission system in New England," said Chris Swan, CL&P's director of municipal relations and siting. "We had over 50 line outages in the transmission system -- that's phenomenal. If you look at Tropical Storm Irene, I think we had three or four transmission line outages."

Alfred, the rare autumn nor'easter that struck Connecticut last month, triggered a record-level of outages. About 830,000 CL&P customers lost power during the storm across the state, compared to about 680,000 during Irene in August, according to Swan, a Westport resident.

Until this year, the 1985 Hurricane Gloria ranked as the most disruptive storm in the state's history, with total power outages of about 570,000, according to Swan.

Extensive tree damage was a predominant cause of outages during the nor'easter, added Swan.

"We are one of the most heavily wooded states in the country," he said. "There are more trees per circuit mile for any state, except for maybe one or two. And that's what took these transmission lines out."

Swan cited tree management as a top concern for the utility, but noted that such work could not entirely prevent tree damage during storms.

"There are a lot of trees on people's private property that we've still got to look at when we're doing our trimming. And we look for the hazards. A tree can look really healthy, and have black ants, and it just fails."

Swan spoke a day after Jeff Butler, the CL&P chief operating officer, resigned amid a torrent of criticism from ratepayers and elected officials over the utility's response to the two storms.

"I don't think there are going to be drastic changes," Swan said of Butler's departure. "But there will be changes for the better. We'll probably come up with some new programs and initiatives."

Following his remarks, Swan fielded several audience questions regarding the cost of installing new underground power lines to reduce outages during subsequent storms. He estimated converting overhead CL&P lines to an underground system would cost between $1.5 and $3 million per mile. That cost, he added, would not include telecommunications lines.

With new leadership, however, Swan said CL&P executives would actively pursue "infrastructure hardening" initiatives, which could include installing more underground lines; instituting more aggressive tree trimming practices; upgrading existing overhead wires to larger wires with polyurethane coating, which would be more resistant to tree limb contact; and replacing existing poles with taller and sturdier posts, which would be less likely to break when struck by tree limbs.

Swan also highlighted a new CL&P infrastructure project in Westport -- construction of a substation on New Creek Road that will begin to serve next year several thousand CL&P customers living in the eastern half of Westport. The new transmission-supplied facility, he said, could help reduce the number of power outages in town during events like the recent storms.

"The reliability should greatly improve for people living in that part of town -- about a third of the town."

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26, also attended Swan's talk. She supported Butler's decision to resign, but called for more far-reaching changes at CL&P.

"What they need is a dramatic change in culture overall," she said. "They need an organization that is more customer-focused. They need to understand that they're providing a service. It's not just simply a commodity."