More aggressive tree-trimming by utilities? That’s what officials at one state agency want

More vigorous vegetation management programs have been met by stiff resistance in New Jersey for years
Credit: (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Aug. 4, 2020: Power lines brought down in Edgewater during Tropical Storm Isaias

New Jersey regulators may turn to state lawmakers to give electric utilities more leeway to trim trees on homeowners’ properties — even those not in the utilities’ rights of way.

In a comprehensive report on power outages caused during a tropical storm this past August, the staff of the state Board of Public Utilities is recommending the agency urge the Legislature to help tighten rules on tree-trimming to prevent such outages. Downed trees caused most of the outages for more than 1 million customers during August’s Tropical Storm Isaias.

The issue has been a perennial source of controversy. More aggressive vegetation management programs proposed by the agency have typically met stiff resistance from local communities, mostly in well-established, tree-lined suburbs, where many residents oppose tree-trimming on their properties.

In the report, BPU staff suggested the state explore legislation that would allow New Jersey’s four electric utilities to trim or remove off-ROW (off-rights of way) “hazard’’ trees that threaten overhead power lines. Such options could only occur when the electric utilities secured the permission of the property owner.

“Until and unless we reckon with the relationship between severe weather and widespread tree-related damage to utility infrastructure, large scale outages, especially in heavily forested areas of the state will continue to occur,’’ the report said.

A recurring problem

BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso has repeatedly vowed to increase efforts to enhance the board’s vegetation management program, saying it has been a recurring problem in extreme storms during his 16 years at the agency.

In general, however, the staff commended the response of the electric utilities to Tropical Storm Isaias with some exceptions; the storm was viewed by some companies as the worst since Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the state eight years ago. In August, service was restored to more than 70% of customers within 72 hours, according to the report.

The utilities have spent billions of dollars trying to increase the resiliency of their systems, which the report found has led to less power outages during storms. “We have come a long way as far as I am concerned,’’ Fiordaliso said during a board meeting on Wednesday.

By most projections, the kinds of extreme storms of the past few years are likely to become more frequent as the climate warms and create more problems for utilities to provide reliable power to customers without extended outages.

The 44-page report recommended ways for the utilities to improve their response to storms, including in communicating about outages to the public and local officials; it made specific recommendations to Jersey Central Power & Light, and to Rockland Electric, to improve their average time for restoring power to customers.

Penalties for delays in restoring power?

At Wednesday’s BPU meeting, several commissioners complained that times to restore power to customers by Rockland Electric lagged behind the other utilities in New Jersey. Commissioner Bob Gordon called the utility’s response “lackadaisical.’’ He suggested raising penalties for extended delays, an option being pursued by regulators in New York.

Other commissioners agreed, noting Rockland Electric was the first utility in New Jersey to implement smart meters for customers, otherwise known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure. “I’m disappointed we didn’t get a bigger bang for our buck for our pilot AMI program,’’ said Commissioner Diane Solomon.

The state’s three other electric utilities have proposed smart meter programs that are pending before the BPU and the report argued that such programs continue to have promise in reducing outage recovery times. Rockland Electric, however, even with use of smart meters, lagged behind other utilities for power restoration times, according to the report.

In another recommendation, the report urged utilities to investigate ways to put power lines underground in certain circumstances. Undergrounding is considered a cost-prohibitive solution — given the cost can be as much as 10 times more expensive than for overhead lines.

The proposal asks utilities to evaluate what five power lines are subject to worst-performing circuits as candidates for undergrounding.