Why Electric Utilities Should Analyze Tree Related Outages

Electric Utilities and Vegetation Management

Ahh Suburbia! Quiet tree-lined streets. Shady lanes and byways. Scenes of old time small towns reminiscent of Norman Rockwell paintings.

People love their trees, a fact well known to utility arborists when they try to trim them to clear lines and rights-of-way. Show up with a cherry picker and a chipper and homeowners will sic the attack cats on you, or form community opposition groups, or worse. They might start reciting poetry.

Just one problem: those magnificent oaks and maples and sycamores that people love so much have a nasty habit of losing their branches or just falling over when the weather gets tough. And in the last few years, with hurricanes, derechos, rogue nor’easters and polar vortexes, they’re falling down in epic numbers. And causing epic damage.

Ask the residents of southeastern Pennsylvania how much they love their friendly neighborhood trees. You could probably find a few hundred thousand homeowners who would like to cut them all down after they had to choose between evacuating their homes or freezing in the dark for the better part of a week after a particularly nasty early February storm.

Good vegetation management calls for a delicate balancing act of many variables. Besides electric utilities and utility regulators, many other stakeholders are involved: municipalities, property owners, environmental groups, planning and shade tree commissions, land planners, and landscape architects, to name most of the interested parties. So it is particularly important for electric utilities to implement effective community relations efforts to deal with local objections to trimming and clearing based on aesthetic concerns.

Strange as it may seem, the recent weather situation does present some opportunities, especially for communities in and adjacent to damaged areas. Because after these recent storms, there may be no better time to make your case for an aggressive tree trimming campaign. Public Relations execs know that it’s always good to seize an opportunity to influence public opinion and consent when people have been moved by recent events.

It may also be a good time to seize the interest of emergency preparedness planners and utility execs. It is critical that electric utilities collect objective information in order to conduct a more detailed analysis of tree related outages. However, many companies do not collect information in sufficient detail to allow a fair assessment of the programs.

Electric utilities can develop a program to track tree related damage at a granular level. This could include the type of tree problem (inside the ROW, outside the ROW); failure mode (tree falls, tree limb); health of the tree (live, dead, or diseased); how far the tree was from the power lines; species of the tree and other appropriate categories. Such tracking would facilitate the analysis required to determine the effectiveness of vegetation management programs.

Criteria for an effective vegetation management plan should clearly state how the utility handles vegetation issues within the ROW or easements, such as specific clearance requirements; need to trim or clear above the lines in addition to around the lines; and a specific listing of species allowed within the ROW, if at all.

Utilities can also use outage statistics over multiple years to evaluate the effectiveness of their vegetation management programs.

A review of vegetation management budget trends, and the actual amount spent, provides an indication of mitigation trends at electric utilities. An increasing budget level trend, as well as spending the budgeted amount each year, indicates an increased focus on vegetation management. This is especially important as proactive tree trimming plans and efforts are always on the list of items regulators want to review in post-restoration audits.

If tree trimming and vegetation management have fallen victim to budget storms at your utility, it may be time to re-think that position. Before people start reciting poetry at you.

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