Preventing Outages During Major Storms Could Call for Tree-Trimming Party

More aggressive vegetation management could help keep lights on, trees off power lines

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, 7 million people were left without electricity — many of them because more than 100,000 trees around New Jersey fell on power lines.

If the state is going to avert widespread outages during major storms in the future, it needs to be a lot more aggressive about how utilities trim trees. That issue is emerging as a top priority of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, the Legislature, and the four electric utilities operating franchises across the state.

The state regulatory agency has ordered the utilities and its staff to establish a working group to identify an improved tracking system to identify what kind of trees are liable to fall on power lines; whether they are live, diseased or dead; and whether or not they are within the utility’s rights of way.

The directive probably will lead to utilities trimming trees more frequently. It also could lead to more dramatic changes, such as dictating to property owners what kinds of trees they may plant near power lines. They might have to forget about tall, stately oaks and instead ponder the virtues of smaller flowering dogwoods.

“An effective vegetation management program [utility jargon for tree trimming] requires close cooperation between the EDCs [electric distribution companies], municipalities, property owners, environmental groups, and local planning and shade-tree commissions,’’ according to a BPU order issued earlier this year.

That close cooperation has not always been attained. Many local residents and officials complain bitterly when the utility comes in and cuts back trees that are decades old. At a forum in December, Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of Public Service Electric & Gas, recalled a local official showing him a finger and telling him not to cut any limb larger than that.

Lawmakers are trying to address the problem by introducing a bill (A-3654) in the Assembly to give utilities more authority to trim trees.

Under the bill, no shade-tree commission could interfere with or restrict a utilities’ ability to conduct tree-trimming work. “Making sure our trees and shrubs are properly maintained around energy infrastructure is quite simply common sense,’’ said Assemblyman John Curran (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill, which was approved by the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee earlier this month.

Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), a cosponsor of the bill, agreed. “We can and should do better,’’ he said. “This bill is sensible.’’

In its order issued in January, the BPU urged staff to implement a more aggressive vegetation management program, including examining whether the state should switch to a shorter tree-trimming cycle and whether certain species ought to be only allowed within the utilities’ easements for their power lines.

Some of the utilities worry that the increased tracking efforts being contemplated by the state might cause delays in restoration efforts, a concern voiced by representatives from Jersey Central Power & Light and Atlantic City Electric. JCP&L, the subject of much criticism during recent major storm events, told the agency its current data collection effort is “effective enough’’ and there is no room for improvement, according to the BPU order.

The agency remained unconvinced. It directed the utility to demonstrate how its current program is effective in reducing outages from falling trees during extreme weather.