T&D World Magazine
damaged power lines

A Resolution for Privately Owned Trees

How could the electric utility industry shed the responsibility for damages from privately owned trees? I’m going to propose a two-step resolution.

For a properly directed and funded UVM program, 2% or less of the tree-caused outages are as a result of grow-ins. That means 98% of tree-related outages are due to tree fall-ins. Virtually none of these failed trees are located within the maintained right of way. Within ROW, trees are typically under the control of a municipal authority, whose professional arborists not only recognize utility objectives but also can agree on the risk posed by diseased and/or structurally unsound trees. That is, unless compelled by a restrictive tree ordinance, municipal arborists are likely to see merit in working and cooperating with their utility peers. 

The vast majority of trees that interrupt electrical service are located on private property. Therein lie the prongs of the fork upon which we are skewered.

When Europeans came en masse to North America, they proceeded to cut down the forests for fuel, building material and to open the land for agriculture. However, with the incredible advances in agriculture beginning with the introduction of gasoline-powered tractors in the late 1800s through 20th century developments such as synthetic fertilizer, pesticides and advances in plant genetics, the area necessary for agriculture has shrunk, leaving a substantial amount of the cleared area to revert to forest. The tree exposure for electrical lines in the 1940s was very different from today. The earliest areas to revert to forest now, some 70 years later, host much taller trees that are over 100 years old. This prong of the metaphorical fork is getting bigger as tree exposure for the electric system will continue to increase and tree mortality brings down bigger and heavier trees. The sheer number and the size of these privately owned trees has been increasing and continues to increase the risk of electric system damage. Yet who is mitigating this risk?

The U.S. population today is 2.5 times greater than it was in 1930. In Canada the population has expanded 3.5 times over the same period. Where do these people reside? In suburbia.

Dr. Michaels, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, made some interesting observations and comments after tropical storm Isabel.

As windbags go, Isabel was a weenie. And weenies shouldn't put our lights out. Yet five days after the storm roared into our lives, 2 million residents of the mid-Atlantic region remained without electric power. Pepco and other utility linemen were taking the fall, but if you ask me, everyone was missing -- and dismissing -- the major culprit: an aging arboreal jungle that we have willingly cultivated in and around our cities but neglected to tend.

No, in plunging us into 18th-century-style dusk-to-dawn darkness and a morass of melting comestibles, Isabel had an agent -- the forest of urban and suburban trees we worship so much that we keep them around long after they should have been put to sleep. They're old, they're fragile, and many of them are so big that, when blown over by tropical-force storm winds, they're likely to find a power line…

A trip down to the local county historical society graphically illustrates the changes in regional vegetation over the past century. In 1900, photos of rural Virginia show most trees about one-third the size of today's. This was the period when the land was recovering from intensive logging, and nascent arborist movements began to exert political influence. That influence has grown today to dominate domestic silviculture and, above all, suburban culture. We are preternaturally crazy about our trees. Yet left untended and allowed to remain standing far longer than they probably should have been, many of the same trees from those old photos have become tattered wrecks, with diseased branches vulnerable to every passing ice storm and decaying hurricane.

So too, in cities and suburbia the risk of tree-caused electric service interruptions has increased. The inference from Dr. Michaels' point that a vast number of these decadent trees exist, is that the landowners are definitely not maintaining the trees and mitigating the risks associated with decadence.

Yet who is willing to compel landowners to address the risk their decadent trees pose to electric system reliability or for power line initiated wildfires? We discussed last month that this is outside the purview of utility regulators. Further, we are talking about something that is sacrosanct, property rights, so politicians will rigorously avoid doing anything. Who then?

The only party left is the one currently in possession of the hot potato – the electric utility industry. How could the electric utility industry shed the responsibility for damages from privately owned trees? I’m going to propose a two-step resolution. First, regulators and politicians have no idea what it would cost to evaluate the risk for every tree that could on failure contact electric power lines. Therefore, utilities should apply for funding to undertake a level three risk assessment for all such trees. As this could easily necessitate a budget 5 times greater than current VM expenditures, I expect regulators would vehemently reject such a request. In doing so, however, the regulator will coincidentally be making a statement that the utility does not own the risks associated with the failure of privately owned trees. That threshold having been crossed, the utilities then need to turn to the courts, suing tree owners for damages whether to the electric facilities or third party property, as is the case in tree and power line initiated wildfires. This approach would require an industry wide agreement and action because one or a few utilities undertaking it would be lambasted as bullies by the media and trigger political action to limit the utility’s right to sue.

Whether it is the approach I’ve proposed or something else, a resolution to this issue of damages arising from privately owned trees is a necessity. In California utilities and their contractors have been held liable for wildfire damages and the costs are so extensive that their ability to acquire insurance is threatened. What would happen in California if the utility contractors unable to obtain insurance left the state. What would happen if a utility unable to obtain insurance declared bankruptcy facing a wildfire damage suit. Perhaps then it would at last be recognized that we have a serious societal issue that requires resolution.

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