Regulators: Tree Trimming Largely Up To Utilities
Public Utility Regulatory Authority officials told Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storm Panel Wednesday that there is no standard or benchmark for them to apply to the tree trimming policies developed by the utilities, and despite the slight increase in the utilities’ tree trimming budgets fewer trees are being trimmed.
In recent years, both United Illuminating and Connecticut Light & Power use tree trimming programs that are performance based, regulators told the panel. That means wires that serve more customers or that have a poorer history of reliability performance are trimmed more frequently, and wires that serve fewer customers or have a good history of reliability are trimmed less frequently.
But John Buckingham, lead engineer at PURA, told the panel he’s not aware of any tree trimming national standard which gives regulators guidance on how frequently trees should be trimmed. He said he believes utilities have access to industry data, but PURA hasn’t been able to obtain it. “There’s been some legal wrangling,” he added.
Regardless of the lack of standards, the utilities submit tree trimming information every year as part of their reliability report to PURA. He said regulators compare reliability from year to year and decisions are made based on those trends, which includes how many times trees come into contact with wires.
Steven Cadwallader, chief utility regulator at PURA, said there are industry standards for how far trees near electric lines should be cut and how many times the utilities cycle through and do cutting, but utilities are largely in charge of their own tree trimming budget.
“Are we trimming these trees aggressively enough?,” Joseph McGee, chairman of the two storm panel, asked.
It was a question neither of the two regulators or the other tree wardens testifying in front of the panel could answer, since tree trimming is part of overall rate cases, which use reliability standards during non-storm events in order to draw its conclusions. Without a standard or benchmark, it was almost impossible to say whether the state’s two utilities do a good or bad job trimming trees.
After Tropical Storm Irene, Malloy noted that state is twice as wooded as it was in 1955 and three times as wooded as it was in 1938. He said the state is going to have to decide how many trees it actually wants next to roadways and how many trees it actually wants next to power lines.
In 2010, PURA authorized CL&P to spend $21.5 million annually for tree trimming, but members of the panel were quick to point out that during five of the last 10 years the company has spent less than budgeted.
In CL&P’s 2010 rate case, PURA actually authorized an amount that was 6.7 percent greater than CL&P had requested in an attempt to further reduce CL&P tree trimming cycles below 5 years. Without the additional push from regulators the company was on track to spend about $19.6 million on its regularly scheduled tree maintenance.
PURA authorized UI, which represents 17 towns in the New Haven area, to spend $3.1 million in 2009 and $3.2 million in 2010 for tree trimming, regulators said. This represented an increase from $2.88 million in 2008. Ul’s performance based program schedules trimming every 4 years for 3 phase sections of line, and every 8 years for single phase sections.
Archie McCullough, of United Illuminating, told the panel that the vast majority of the cost his utility incurs with its vegetation program is the cost of traffic control, which is what utilities say is driving up the cost of tree trimming services.
Aside from tree trimming, other solutions to improving the state’s electrical grid included burying the overhead electrical lines, but McCullough said that would cost between $3 and $6 billion.
He said the company has invested a lot of time talking about different types of overhead construction which could sustain various weather and high wind events. He said other utilities have also looked at targeted hardening of the infrastructure.
“We’ve been told a Category III hurricane takes down your infrastructure completely,” McGee told McCullough.
McCullough said the UI system was build to sustain 50 mph winds.
A report from the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection found the maximum wind gust from Irene was 66 mph. The average maximum wind gust for the entire state was 52.3 mph and approximately 2 to 3 percent of trees within 50 feet of the center line of state roads were felled by the storm.
The report also found that if it was a Category I hurricane an estimated 180,000 trees would fall resulting in approximately 150,000 trouble spots and nearly a complete outage of the state requiring 67 days for full restoration. The estimate assumes the same number of available line crews as Irene. If it were a Category III hurricane 420,000 trees would fall resulting in approximately 350,000 trouble spots and a 100 percent outage of the state requiring 157 days for full restoration.
“We understand something needs to be done with trees, but the question is what is it,” McGee asked McCullough. “You laid out case that it’s going to cost us $300 million to eliminate 300,000 trees in the utility right-of-ways. The public needs to understand that.”
“People love their trees and they have great value,” McGee said.
But McCullough said he doesn’t see a practical alternative.
According to an Office of Legislative Research report on tree trimming Connecticut Light & Power received 397 tree trimming refusals in 2009 and 344 through October 2010.
Tree trimming has been a hot topic of discussion since the bulk of the damage caused during Tropical Storm Irene and the recent October snowstorm was related to trees.