Few electric utilities can claim they’ve never run into the buzz saw of public disapproval powered by tree trimming troubles. Politics may enter the decision-making process for siting generation and transmission but when a project is done, it’s done. Nuclear plant: operational life span of decades. Transmission lines: strung and up. But trees (and kudzu) keep growing all the time.
Vegetation management programs are one of an electric utility’s largest recurring maintenance expenses. Keeping trees and vegetation from conflicting with power lines is their responsibility, critical and costly, but salaries and supplies aren’t the only price to be paid. Vegetation management also creates one of the utility’s biggest PR problems, because community relations, that intangible but essential component of a well-run utility, are at stake.
Good vegetation management is essential at both the transmission and distribution level, but the most visceral public reaction to tree trimming is local. That’s where most of the public relations problems spring up.
In April of this year, American Electric Power-Public Service Company of Oklahoma (AEP-PSO) responded to criticism about its tree trimming program in Tulsa, Okla., by giving customers options such as hiring their own crews to trim trees in their yards. The company also began undergrounding some lines, and AEP-PSO hopes to convert almost all of Tulsa to an underground system someday. That work will take decades, though. Stan Whiteford, manager, corporate communications, for AEP-PSO, said in an interview in the Tulsa World, “Undergrounding doesn’t mean every line everywhere. We will still need to trim trees.”
AEP-PSO plans to run public meetings in Tulsa to help cut down on the perennial tree trimming controversy. “The more people understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, the less concern it will cause,” said Whiteford. Power outages have been reduced by 80 percent in some areas of Tulsa as a result of the tree-trimming campaign, according to the company.
Besides improving reliability, properly maintained rights-of-way are essential to the safety of utility workers and customers. According to BASF, an international chemical company that provides professional vegetation management programs for utilities in the United States, fire is another danger good vegetation management addresses. If the physical separation between trees and power lines isn’t properly maintained, arcing can occur. Arcing distances vary depending on voltage and ambient conditions, but any branch connecting with a high-voltage line can spark a fire.
the Tree Line USA program
Pacific Gas and Electric Company was recognized in early April as a “Tree Line USA Utility” for the 12th consecutive year by the National Arbor Day Foundation. The award acknowledges the company’s environmental leadership in caring for the health of trees while providing safe and sound management of tree growth along electric power lines.
“Over the last several years PG&E has put in place a leading vegetation management program that supports our initiatives to improve the delivery of safe and reliable energy to our customers,” said Steve Tankersley, operations manager of the company’s vegetation management program.
The company conducts an extensive year-round line-clearing cycle that safely trims trees and removes brush from more than 120,000 miles of electric lines and maintains “vegetation-free zones” at the bases of 125,000 transmission towers and distribution poles.
The Tree Line USA program is sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation in cooperation with the National Association of State Foresters. Criteria for the award are based on excellence in three key areas: quality tree-care, annual worker training and public education.
Utilities that participate in the Tree Line USA program set a good example of environmental stewardship and are publicly recognized for promoting the dual goals of dependable utility service and abundant, healthy trees. Scores of utilities have been certified as Tree Line USA utilities since the program began in 1992. Currently more than 130 utilities of all sizes-from the public power and investor-owned sectors-are certified. Some have been in the program for 10 years or more. Utilities in this elite class include AEP-Public Service Company of Oklahoma, City of Redding Electric Utility, Colorado Springs Utilities, Detroit Edison, Wisconsin Public Service Corporation and Xcel Energy.
Three Massachusetts utility companies, NSTAR, Chicopee Electric Light and National Grid, received 2006 Tree Line USA Awards. National Grid also received a certificate of recognition for its recent donation of $250,000 to the Mass ReLeaf Trust Fund, a trust fund for public tree planting projects in Massachusetts. It was the largest single private contribution ever made to the fund.