Utilities in NJ to Be Let Get More Aggressive Trimming Trees, Clearing Vegetation?

Tom Johnson | September 21, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Massive power outages during spring storms precipitated review of utilities’ rights to manage vegetation. Critics say proposed legislation goes too far

Power outage
Last March, falling trees toppled more than 2,000 utility poles and over 100,000 miles of power lines in New Jersey, leaving more than 1 million customers without power, some for up to 11 days.

It led the state Board of Public Utilities to recommend in a post-storm analysis a more proactive approach to cutting down and trimming trees to avert widespread outages, typically the primary reason that customers lose power.

Yesterday, the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee took action to achieve that goal by approving a bill (A-2558) to allow more aggressive tree-trimming and vegetation management by the state’s four electric utilities.

“We can’t do everything to prevent storm damage, but we can do what’s smart to protect our energy infrastructure,’’ said Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), chairman of the panel and sponsor of the bill. “Making sure our trees and shrubs are properly maintained around energy infrastructure is quite simply common sense.’’

It also, however, is quite controversial. Homeowners and local shade-tree commissions often try to block vegetation management, particularly when utilities try to trim trees outside their rights of way.

Barred from interfering with the removal

The bill would prevent such commissions from interfering or restricting an electric utility’s removal, replacement or maintenance of dangerous vegetation. That would include vegetation “in, near or adjacent’’ to the utility’s right of way.

“I like trees, but not when your lights are out for two weeks,’’ said Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Sussex), a co-sponsor of the bill. “We need to decide which is more important — aesthetically looking trees or helping prevent extended power outages that can be life threatening to the elderly, families with small children and people with disabilities or illnesses.’’

This past March, three winter storms left 1.2 million people without power, with most of those outages caused by falling trees, limbs and other vegetation, according to BPU. In a report this past summer, the agency recommended more expansive tree-trimming and vegetation management.

“It’s not an easy task, but more needs to be done,’’ said Jim Giuliano, director of BPU’s Division of Reliability & Security, who briefed the committee on the post-storm report. “We’ll take a heavy look at our tree-trimming regulations to see if we can revise them.’’

Going too far?

Some argued the bill approved by the committee goes too far by exempting utilities from local tree ordinances and shade-tree commissions.

“This gives them a blanket to clear cut anything they want,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We need protective and selective cutting, not just open discretion.’’

“There’s no easy answers,’’ said Andrew Hendry, president and CEO of the New Jersey Utilities Association, who added the organization is generally supportive of ways to improve vegetation management.

Beyond tree-trimming, the BPU recommended a number of other steps to try and avert widespread outages from extreme storm events. They include better sharing of crews among the state’s four electric utilities; improved forecasting on the severity of storms; and an assessment of implementing AMI (advanced metering infrastructure), a two-way communications system between customers and the utility to pinpoint outages when and where they occur.

“We do think it could be a game-changer in New Jersey,’’ Giuliano said of AMI, which is widely used in many parts of the country but now only being tested in New Jersey by Rockland Electric.