Outreach & Education: Two Keys to an Effective Line Clearance Program

By Francis W. Peverly, Con Edison

Successful line clearance programs rely on more than trimming branches away from electric wires or removing trees that may damage equipment during a storm. Quality programs balance the short-term requirements to remove the potential limb and tree interference with an environmentally sound approach that preserves the aesthetic of the community and promotes the long-term health of the urban forest. Integral to this approach is an outreach and education campaign which promotes the need for electric reliability, the use of vegetation for energy conservation and the selection of compatible plantings along utility easements.

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Consolidated Edison Company of New York, in developing a new line clearance strategy for its Westchester County service area, launched an outreach-education campaign to nurture a positive experience for customers while conducting distribution line clearance work. The Con Edison distribution system covers 604 square miles and contains an estimated population of more than 9 million. It includes the five boroughs of New York City as well as a significant portion of Westchester County.

While predominantly known for its vast urban network distribution system, Con Edison operates and maintains an extensive 33-kV, 27-kV, and 13-kV and 4-kV overhead distribution system in all areas of its service territory except Manhattan. This overhead system contains nearly 33,135 miles of overhead wires including primary, secondary and services.

The Suburban Jungle

In 2006, a series of major storms caused extensive damage to the Westchester County overhead distribution system. Tree-related outages, caused in part by the adverse weather, were the leading reason for service interruptions. Damage occurred not only from uprooted trees and broken limbs, but also from the repetitive contact with tree limbs and leaders against the distribution equipment.

Con Edison has conducted tree trimming work for many years. In New York City, tree-related outages are a relatively small component of all service interruptions. However, in the predominantly suburban environment of Westchester County, tree-related service interruptions account for 20 percent to 25 percent of all customer outages. During storms, those percentages spike.

Recognizing the disparate results of its tree-trimming operation, as well as the need to storm-harden its suburban system, the company proposed an integrated vegetation management program that employed increased trimming clearances, brush removal, cut stump treatment and the removal of non-compatible trees which interfered with the operation of the utility distribution system.

Historically, acquiring increased clearances has been difficult in Westchester County. It has a mature urban forest with thick canopy that has been relatively unscathed from past weather events. This allowed for residential areas with heavy tree cover and many tree-lined streets in light business and commercial areas. Also, many residents of Westchester County are commuters who travel daily into New York City. These residents take personal pride in their trees and the serenity and comfort they provide after a long day working and commuting. To attain its desired results, Con Edison knew it first had to educate all the stakeholders about the need for an enhanced tree-trimming program and, second, had to develop a program that incorporated stakeholder concerns.

The company sought to achieve a balance between community aesthetics and public safety delivered through improved service reliability. In an era of increasing energy costs and heightened environmental awareness, the company knew it would have to reach out to let stakeholders understand the company’s goals were compatible with energy conservation and environmental sensitivity.

Though trees would have to be removed and trimmed, if the line clearance staff was trained and equipped to discuss the characteristics of energy conservation through proper plantings—or be able to discuss soil erosion and flood mitigation efforts after tree removals—that would build credibility in the program. (It also would improve the company’s image after a series of storms that left customers questioning the competence of its employees.)

The tradition of just showing up and cutting would not suffice if the proper cutbacks were hoped to be achieved and the aggressive schedule—the line clearance program has been placed on a three-year cycle—was to be maintained.

Hitting the Streets

The cornerstone of the outreach and education effort was the development of the “Line Clearance Communications Policy Statement.” Prepared by the company’s arborists, it outlined Con Edison’s goal to strike a healthy balance between our appreciation for trees and the company’s obligation to provide safe, reliable electric service. It further articulated how Con Edison communicates and works with communities, local government, and individual property owners to ensure proper clearance between trees and the electric system is maintained in an environmentally sound manner.

The “Line Clearance Communications Policy Statement” has become an integral part of the company’s outreach strategy. It ensures timely notification of work, assures an opportunity for open dialogue with stakeholders, and provides for the long-term benefit of the urban forest through education.

The Line Clearance Communication Policy Statement incorporates the following elements:

  • Media and press utilization;
  • Community and stakeholder education;
  • Cooperation with municipalities and government leaders;
  • Cooperation with individual property owners.

Con Edison’s goal is to ensure municipal and individual property owners are contacted prior to the start of any non-trouble-related work. The company also aggressively communicates and educates various community stakeholders to avoid potential long-term conflict between the electric system and the urban forest.

Con Edison’s use of the media has generally focused on local weekly newspapers where the newspaper’s target audience comprises those most likely impacted by the work. As the new enhanced program was initiated, the local paper was used to deliver the company’s message. As stories unfold or major weather impacts the system, local television may be co-opted to film crews trimming trees.

In conjunction with the use of media, the company aggressively speaks to various constituencies, including parks departments, local conservation and shade tree boards, non-profit and civic organizations, local public access television and forums sponsored by government leaders. Con Edison has developed a presentation which ensures the consistency of its message, promotes key elements of the line clearance program and promotes its environmental stewardship. These forums provide an excellent avenue to open a dialogue with concerned customers. They also provide a means to get feedback and knowledge from others who are well-versed in arboricultural practices.

As work plans are developed and trimming schedules prepared, a local company arborist reaches out to municipal leaders to advise them of our work schedule and the communications plan that will be shared with residents. These meetings often begin informally and conclude with a formal presentation before town and village boards. The board meetings are often aired on local public access television and give residents advance knowledge of the company’s plans. The company arborist then may follow up with a walk-through with the community’s government representatives to provide a clearer understanding of the work.

Contact with local residents along the trimming route is initially made via mail. Using a notification brochure developed specifically for the enhanced trimming standards, a mailing is sent to all potential customers along the trimming route four to six weeks in advance of the work (see graphic, pg. 50). This brochure shows some trimming standards that may be employed, advises customers of the need for the work, and provides alternative means to contact the Con Edison arborist, including a toll-free number to reach the company and an e-mail account that is directed to the line clearance department for followup. This notification brochure has proved to be an excellent means for customers to reach out to Con Edison arborists to review the work plan and discuss alternative means to achieve a landscape compatible with overhead distribution systems.

A final backstop for local residents is the use of a notification forester. Con Edison began using knowledgeable trimming personnel in advance of the trimming crews to contact residents and provide more specific details about work on their property. These notification foresters also acquire signed permission from property owners for all tree removals. Knowledgeable in the line clearance specification as well as the practical work techniques the trimming crews use, these individuals offer Con Edison customers information and humanize what too often is perceived as an anonymous bureaucracy.

Door Knobs and Websites

As with any assignment, proper tools expedite the job. Con Edison developed several means to exchange information between the company and its stakeholders. Besides the company’s toll free number and the line clearance department e-mail account, the Con Edison Web site was improved with new tree trimming data and information.

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Located at www.coned.com/publicissues/treeguide_intro.asp, the site explains the line clearance program, provides information about the schedule, illustrates some of the trimming methods and provides quick links to the Con Edison Tree Maintenance Guide. The guide was developed as a result of inquiries from municipal leaders and electric customers. It explains compatible species, selecting proper trees, proper pruning and safety. These guides have been distributed through the Westchester County Library System and are provided to customers at meetings attended by the Con Edison arborists.

Con Edison also uses “door-hangers” to advise customers of the work planned and to provide a means to contact company representatives.

Three of the Westchester arborists have received the International Society of Arboriculture (“ISA”) Certified Arborist designation and use ISA brochures for outreach and educational purposes. These brochures present a non-partisan view reinforcing the company’s message that work will be done in an environmentally sound manner.

In planning for the increased tree-trimming clearances, Con Edison recognized a maze of obstacles if it continued to trim trees using its traditional communication methods. The company also recognizes that today’s customer is knowledgeable about the role vegetation plays in energy conservation. Con Edison understood the devotion Westchester County residents have for their mature tree canopies and street trees. Con Edison had to open a dialogue with all the stakeholders and commit to achieving a balance between preserving the aesthetic of the community and electric reliability.

The results are meeting or exceeding expectations. Line Clearance Program mileage targets have been exceeded, the program staff has developed credibility with customers, and public reaction has been favorable. Local governments have been supportive of the work and have been grateful for the technical guidance that company staff, specifically the certified arborists, has been able to offer. Finally, the success of these intiaitives is forming the foundation for further enhanced outreach and education programs.

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At Con Edison, we know we are stewards of the environment in which we all work, play and live. Preservation of the urban forest canopy, balanced against the need for electric reliability, is critical and achievable with an aggressive outreach and education plan.

Francis Peverly is general manager, Bronx-Westchester electric operations, for Con Edison.

PECO to Spend $35 Million on Tree Trimming

With 30 percent of its power outages caused by trees last year, Exelon subsidiary PECO will spend $35 million this year clearing trees around power lines, particularly in the suburban counties across southeastern Pennsylvania.

PECO delivers electricity to its 1.6 million customers over more than 2,300 distribution circuits. The circuits are patrolled for tree trimming on a cyclical basis. The spending on its vegetation management program is one of the key components of PECO’s preventive maintenance program for electric service reliability. The vegetation management projects planned for this year will directly benefit more than 200,000 customers.

The largest scope of work will take place in Chester County, Pa., with crews trimming along nearly 1,400 miles of right-of-way. Work will be completed early in the year in Delaware County, Pa., where crews are working along nearly 250 miles of aerial lines. In Bucks County, crews will be centered mainly at the company’s Buckingham and Emilie substations, trimming along roughly 900 miles of aerial lines that run through Buckingham, Solebury, New Hope, Plumstead, Bedminster, Dublin, New Britain, Doylestown, Wrightstown, and portions of Northampton, Falls, Middletown, and Bristol townships.

PECO also will clear vegetation from under about 230 miles of high-voltage transmission line across the region. Under guidelines from the International Society of Arboriculture and the North American Electric Reliability Corp., PECO does not allow any trees to grow under the “wire zone” directly beneath electric transmission lines and only low-growing shrubbery or grasses in the areas bordering the wire zone. These standards were adopted following the Northeast blackout in August 2003.

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