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State Board of Public Utilities Takes Tougher Stance on Tree-Trimming

Downed trees kept millions without power in wake of Sandy, other extreme weather

BPU Joseph Fiordaliso
Credit: Amanda Brown
Joseph Fiordaliso, commissioner of the NJ BPU.

The state is promising to get tougher with New Jersey’s four electric utilities over their tree-trimming practices, hoping to curtail the number of outages that occur in extreme storms when blown-down trees take out power lines.

After more than 100,000 trees fell on power lines during Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is looking to adopt stricter standards on how utilities run what the agency calls vegetation management programs in their franchise territories.

In the opening salvo of what is likely to be a nearly year-long process, BPU staff talked about a number of options under consideration, including shortening the cycle of how often utilities have to trim trees along their power lines; whether stiffer fines are needed to ensure that companies comply with program requirements; and whether more frequent reporting requirements ought to be forwarded to the agency.

“We’re going to get in your face a little bit more than in the past,’’ Jerome May, director of the state Division of Energy within the BPU told utility officials who attended the stakeholder meeting in Trenton on the ground floor of the BPU’s office. “You shouldn’t be worried about that.’’

The stronger stance reflects pressure on the agency to take steps to avert the kind of widespread outages that occurred during Hurricane Sandy, which left 2.8 million people without power, and other recent extreme weather. In a rare October snowstorm in 2011, 57 percent of outages affecting nearly a half-million customers were traced to tree-related problems, according to a consultant for the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel.

Few dispute the need to trim trees along local power lines to prevent outages, but it is a highly contentious issue in many towns, especially in suburban communities where trees have been growing for decades. Local officials often complain about the practice, saying too aggressive tree trimming changes the nature of the community.

“Not everyone is going to be happy,’’ conceded BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso, referring to the agency’s efforts to overhaul its tree-trimming policies. “Obviously, something has to be done,’’ he said, citing what happened with Sandy.

While conceding the utilities generally do a good job in preventing trees from falling on power lines, the staff and Fiordaliso, the lone commissioner at the meeting, argued more needs to be done, especially communicating with local officials about tree-trimming policies.

In particular, Fiordaliso said the state has to decide what to do about trees not in a utility’s right-of-way if they fall on power lines. A Livingston resident, he noted that a tree in his front yard could wipe out power to many residents, if it fell on the line outside his home.

“How do you identify trees that are potentially dangerous and could take down half the town and are on private property?’’ asked Fiordaliso. “Is there a resolution to it? I don’t know, but it’s worth the discussion.’’

For the most part, the utilities dodged that question, although Atlantic City Electric and Public Service Electric & Gas officials said they have a program to identify trees that pose a risk to power lines.

The utilities also were reticent about adopting many of the proposed changes suggested by the agency’s staff, including shortening the current four-year cycle to trim trees within their franchise territory.

“We would prefer a four-year cycle,’’ said Matthew Simons, senior staff forester for Atlantic City Electric, a utility serving half a million customers in South Jersey, indicating that the current timeframe has proven successful in preventing outages.

Other industry officials urged the board to examine the costs of changing the standards.

“As you are looking to changing standards, you have to look at the costs and what will be passed on to ratepayers,’’ said Andrew Hendry, president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, an industry trade group.

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