NIMBY-ism Turns to NIMFY-ism in Tulsa

Steven Brown, Editor in Chief

Here in Tulsa, Okla., my power is provided by Public Service Company of Oklahoma, a unit of American Electric Power. Tulsa’s PSO has been routinely criticized over the years for its tree-trimming practices (a criticism which I’m sure isn’t peculiar to my local utility). To be sure, the trimming performed by PSO’s contractors leaves much to be desired from a purely aesthetic point of view, but it has been effective in maintaining power reliability in a city that’s prone to damaging winds, lightning storms and ice.

A few years ago, I lived in a particularly wooded part of Tulsa with overhead distribution lines. Sure, I had unsightly lines in my backyard, but they were well-covered by lush vegetation. One summer while living in that part of town, I suffered an outage of 30-plus hours at the beginning of summer and another of right around 20 hours at the end of summer. All that beautiful vegetation managed to find its way into and on top of the lines during a couple of heavy thunder and wind storms. In the aftermath of the second outage, PSO sent in crews to essentially clear-cut the right of way in my back yard. It wasn’t pretty … at all, but I didn’t have another extended outage the entire time I lived there. I’ve since moved farther south in Tulsa, where we have even more trees, but most all the distribution lines run underground. Aside from a flicker here and there, my power reliability has been rock-solid. At the same time, my Tulsa neighbors to the north, where the lines remain overhead, still suffer the odd 10-plus-hour outage when a strong thunderstorm comes through.

So, one would think those neighbors of mine would have been overjoyed when PSO announced a plan to bury 700 miles of overhead lines over a 15-year period. Undergrounding is an expense many electric utility companies aren’t willing to undertake, but PSO is ready to bite the bullet.

Proving the axiom that you can’t please everyone, upon receiving notification that work would begin on undergrounding their distribution lines, residents of the historic Maple Ridge neighborhood in midtown Tulsa pushed back. You see, PSO’s undergrounding plans in Maple Ridge required transformer boxes to be placed in the residents’ front yards. (Actually, only about one in 10 residents would have the transformers.)

Residents of toney Maple Ridge weren’t having it. They banded together, started a “Stop the Box” campaign and told PSO they wanted the green transformer boxes placed in back of their houses, not out front. PSO said that wouldn’t be possible-or more likely wouldn’t be economically feasible-and now the lines won’t be buried in the front yards or the back yards. So there, Maple Ridge.

PSO continues to bury lines in other parts of Tulsa, and will revisit the plan with Maple Ridge at a later date-perhaps after the next wind storm leaves residents sweating out 95-degree heat and listening to their food slowly spoil.

PSO, like many power companies, is damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Citywide, the call since I’ve lived here has been to get those nasty distribution lines underground. It’s a prime example of the difficulty an electric utility company experiences while trying to please all its customers, all the time.

Kudos to AEP-PSO for the effort.

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