Fine Print: BPU Allows Test Run of More Aggressive Tree-Trimming Policies

Tom Johnson | January 7, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Pilot program allows utilities to identify ‘high-hazard’ trees, ones that could take out power to a neighborhood if they fell

tree trimming
What it is: Program to reduce power outages through more aggressive tree trimming by utilities.

How it will be done: The state Board of Public Utilities is conducting a pilot program in seven towns to allow electric utilities to cut down trees that might take out power lines if they fall — even if they are not in the utilities’ traditional rights-of-way. The targets are called high-hazard trees; if they fall in a storm they could knock out power to an entire neighborhood.

Why it is being tried: During Hurricane Sandy, more than 100,000 trees fell on power lines, a not insignificant part of the problem that led to more than 2.8 million customers being left in the dark. The state has been trying to promote more aggressive tree-trimming policies to reduce outages; this is part of that effort. In a rare October snowstorm a few years ago, 57 percent of the outages were related to trees falling on power lines, according to the state Division of Rate Counsel.

Why it is controversial: Many towns and older suburbs oppose aggressive tree-trimming policies, particularly those that target mature, leafy shade trees that have been growing near streets for decades.

What is being done: The pilot program, undertaken by the state’s two largest electric utilities, Public Service Electric & Gas and Jersey Central Power & Light, will target seven municipalities — East Windsor, Blairstown, Millstone, Freehold, Little Ferry, North Haledon, and Garwood. It aims to identify between 10 and 20 trees as “hazard trees.’’ These are defined as structurally unsound trees on or off the right-of-way that could strike electric supply lines when they fall.

How the program will work: The towns and utilities have created a list of hazard trees that need to be removed as part of the pilot program. The pilot calls for replacement trees to be planted for homeowners, not the huge oaks and maples that lead to outages, but smaller trees that do not threaten power lines.

What has been done in the past: The BPU has vowed to take tougher action to force utilities to more aggressively trim trees that could fall on power lines as part of its vegetation management policy. Those steps include shortening the cycle of how often utilities trim trees to adopting stiffer penalties for those companies that fail to comply with the new mandates.

What happens next: The pilot program is expected to run through the end of May 2105 — at which time the agency will evaluate the results and determine whether a more extensive tree-trimming policy is warranted.