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Pilot Program Gives Freer Hand to Utilities to Trim High-Hazard Trees

With homeowners' permission, utilities can take down or trim trees -- even if they are not directly in companies’ rights of way

tree trimming

The state is considering new regulations that would let electric companies remove high-hazard trees -- providing they get property owners’ permission -- even if they are not in a utility’s right of way.

In a pilot program conducted in the territories of Jersey Central Power & Light and Public Service Electric & Gas, approximately 120 high-hazard trees were cut down to prevent future power outages.

The problem of trees or large limbs falling on power lines is a major source of outages, one exacerbated by the unusual extreme storms that have hit portions of New Jersey in recent years. In the wake of those storms, regulators have promised to take a tougher stance on the issue.

During Hurricane Sandy, more than 100,000 trees fell on power lines, knocking out electricity to homes and businesses. In a rare October snowstorm, 57 percent of the outages were related to falling trees, according to the state Division of Rate Counsel.

“We recognized steps needed to be taken,’’ said Jerry May, director of the Division of Energy for the state Board of Public Utilities. Modifications to existing vegetation-management rules will improve system reliability, according to May.

Part of the effort will be to ask the utilities to track and report high-hazard trees located outside of their rights of way, officials said.

“We’re going to enhance the infrastructure,’’ predicted BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso. “This board continues to work on resiliency. The goal is to make the system as strong as we can and have shorter outages.’’

In the pilot program, the utilities replaced homeowner’s hazard trees with smaller trees that do not threaten power lines. In the past, many towns and older suburbs criticized aggressive tree trimming by the utilities from an aesthetic perspective.

May emphasized the program has to be voluntary, but cautioned eventually something needs to be done. “We’re only postponing the inevitable: Either it will fall down or have to be removed,’’ he said. “There’s no real nuance to vegetation management when you get on the ground.’’

Some towns recognize the problem. Warren Township in Somerset County teamed up with Rutgers University to identify hazards that could lead to power outages, including cracked or broken utility poles.

The agency is looking for recommendations from the four electric utilities in developing new regulations, according to May.

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