T&D World Magazine
Who is Responsible? Wendy Townrow/iStock/Thinkstock

Who is Responsible?

My work has shown that tree-related outages are driven by the extent of electric system tree exposure.

Is it possible for us to substantially improve overhead electric system performance during major storm events without resolving the issue of private tree owner responsibility? I don’t think we can. My work has shown that tree-related outages are driven by the extent of electric system tree exposure. Two utilities I worked with, on investigating tree-caused outages, found that in 68% of the cases, had the tree been assessed just before the failure it would not have been perceived as a hazard tree or imminent threat to the system. Keep in mind that this data comes from tree failures that occurred under normal operating conditions because to date I don’t know of any utility that collects this type of detailed data under major storm conditions.

Any utility that has a rural component knows that tree-caused outages come from the edge of and beyond the right of way – that is, privately held trees. From the preceding paragraph we find that 68% of the trees that failed were not targeted by the VM program. What of the other 32% that were legitimately unsound, hazard trees when they failed? Who should be held responsible for detecting the hazard and addressing it?

While I’m a strong proponent of holding the tree owners accountable, I’m not optimistic that we have politicians willing to state, much less regulate based on the inconvenient truth. Nonetheless, it is refreshing that the topic has been raised in Connecticut.

CL&P indicated that the Act did not specifically address tree owner responsibility and liability for trees that cause damage to the company’s facilities. Since the storms of 2011, numerous experts and consultants have concluded that the condition of the trees growing alongside CL&P’s conductors has deteriorated and presents a growing risk to utility infrastructure. A key issue remaining to be addressed is the need for public and private tree owners to take an active role in maintaining trees along public roadways. CL&P Brief, p. 4. CL&P contended that roadside tree maintenance should not be the responsibility of the electric utilities only. A well-maintained roadside forest would reduce the number and duration of power outages and blocked roads as a result of tree failures. It is more cost effective to maintain trees than it is to restore damaged infrastructure. CL&P contended that public and private tree owners should be responsible for maintaining their trees within the rights of way and should be held responsible for resulting claims should their successful objection to line clearance work result in tree failure and damage. Id.

 The SVMTF concurred with CL&P regarding trees on private property that have potential to fail and impact public safety. It recommended that those trees be maintained by the owners of those trees. SVMTF Report, p. 35.

 Damage from trees located on private property adjacent to utility infrastructure remains problematic since these trees are not under the control of the utilities except for the branches that overhang the ROW. In the opinion of the Authority, the participation by private property owners would lead to improved reliability, safer roads, less cleanup costs and faster restoration. ..DOCKET NO. 12-01-10 PURA INVESTIGATION INTO THE TREE TRIMMING PRACTICES OF CONNECTICUT'S UTILITY COMPANIES

PURA rightly passed the buck on this to the legislature. They are there to regulate the utilities not landowners.

Credit goes to the Connecticut utilities for raising the issue that is pervasive, not confined to just that state. Given the regulatory and political back-pedaling on the Enhanced Tree Trimming we can expect that this hot potato will get tossed around some, not with the hope of resolution, but that after numerous passes it will become lost like the pea under the tin cup. 

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