BPU Weighs New Tree-Trimming Policy to Cut Down On Outages

Falling trees and branches can take out a power line, leaving customers in the dark for days on end

Credit: Amanda Brown
Dianne Solomon, president of the NJ BPU.
The state is looking to promote new standards to ensure New Jersey’s electric utilities do a better job of trimming trees to avert power outages during storms.

In approving a recommendation from its staff, the Board of Public Utilities yesterday issued an order to begin a process among utilities, local officials, and forestry experts to determine what steps are needed to prevent widespread outages caused by trees or branches falling on power lines.

The issue is fraught with controversy, however, as even the commissioners acknowledged.

While virtually everyone agrees tree trimming is necessary to avoid outages, it is a highly contentious issue in some communities. Especially so in suburban towns where so-called vegetation management can easily rile residents and property-owners along streets where trees have been growing for decades.

But ever since Hurricane Sandy, the agency has been worried about utilities’ tree-trimming efforts. During the storm, more than 100,000 trees fell on power lines around New Jersey, causing extensive outages.

To the BPU, that event signaled a call for action.

“You don’t want to destroy trees, but at the same time you know what effect trees have on outages during storms,’’ said BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso. Yet he offered a powerful anecdote on how sensitive the issue can be to property owners.

He remember getting a call from a state senator screaming at him about cutting trees in his district. In one case, the utility was preparing to trim a tree planted by a mother who lost her son while fighting Iraq, Fiordaliso said. She was literally hugging the tree to prevent the utility from trimming it, he said.

Not all utility tree-trimming efforts trigger such an emotional response, but they often can be confrontational.

Still, BPU President Dianne Solomon noted a great many outages are caused by trees falling on power lines. “It’s time to update these rules,’’ she said.

In the past, regulators concerns focused on high-voltage transmission lines, an issue that arose in 2003 when an unpruned tree hit a transmission line in Ohio, triggering the blackout of more than 50 million homes in much of the Eastern Seaboard and parts of Canada.

Now, it is the distribution system that is more of an issue, according to BPU Commissioner Jeanne Fox. “I think we’re moving in the right direction,’’ she said. Fox, however, said the utility ought to consider whether an individual community could block tree-trimming efforts if the failure to do so only affects that locale.

Meanwhile, the agency is expected to consider a proposal to establish a tracking system for tree-related outages at its monthly meeting in March. The system is expected to provide information on what 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 right of way.

In an order issued early in 2013, the BPU urged its staff to implement a more aggressive vegetation management program, including examining whether the state should switch to a shorter tree-trimming cycle and determining if certain species of trees ought to be only allowed within the utilities’ easements for their power lines.

New Jersey’s electric utilities say they recognize the problems caused by trees and are taking steps to resolve the problem.

Jersey Central Power & Light, the state’s second-largest utility with more than 1 million customers, spent $25 million in 2013 to trim trees along 3,600 miles of power lines throughout the state, according to Ron Morano, a spokesman for the company.

Those expenditures come at a time when the utility is under increasing scrutiny by state regulators over how much it was investing in keeping its power grid reliable.

A consultant for the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel claimed that that 57 percent of outages affecting nearly a half-million customers in a rare October snowstorm can be traced to tree-related problems.