The Best Defense Is A Good Offense

Feb. 7, 2011
Utilities need to identify sources of public irritation, anticipate the difficult questions that may arise and gather the data necessary to support the answers they will give.

I read the news today, oh boy. Councilwoman Muriel Bowser introduced a bill that will require the power company to pay for motel rooms for D.C. residents if their electricity is not restored within 24 hours when it’s below freezing or over 95 (Washington Examiner, Feb. 1, 2011)

While I can understand the frustration over extended electric outages, this solution could only arise within the context of a complete lack of understanding of the utility operating environment.

But perhaps even more baffling to me is why the utility industry refuses to recognize the game and get into it. You’re standing at the plate. You should expect the pitch. You should also expect the umpire is going to call a strike whether you swing or not. Does the industry prepare itself to hit one out of the ball park? No. If there’s any intent to play the ball, it’s walk or at best a bunt.

In this metaphor, the opposing team comprises regulators, politicians, journalists and other utility critics. The public, because they call the strikes, are both the umpires and the spectators. The critics are the home team. Under these circumstances, the best you can do is to gain the respect of the spectators. Gaining that respect requires - more than beating the home team - a good game.

Playing the good game requires preparation. How does this apply to the utility industry and to VM? Utilities need to identify sources of public irritation, anticipate the difficult questions that may arise and gather the data necessary to support the answers they will give. It’s akin to stocking the team with capable batters that are familiar with the opposing pitching stable’s repertoire. You are then positioned to hit one out of the park.

Limiting the discussion to VM, what are likely points of passionate engagement? Here are some common ones: hazard tree removals, public views on pruning, the extent of clearance required, the use of herbicides and the connection between VM work and the extent of storm damage. On some of these issues, playing softball may be workable but on others, the utilities would fare better if they were prepared to play hardball.

One area where utilities continuously get raked over the coals is storm damage. Where does this storm damage come from? PEPCO said over 90% of the outages during the July 2010 storms were caused by trees or large branches falling into lines. Dr. Richard Brown, looking into the impact of Hurricane Ike and possible mitigation for future hurricanes, asked me if CenterPoint’s claim that over 90% of the trees that caused outages would not have been designated hazard trees was in my view plausible? (Yes and not surprising) At least 85% of the outages caused to Duke Power’s system by the 2002 ice storm in North Carolina were attributed to tree failures. Ralph Hale had told me that at least 90% of the system damage from the 2000 Arkansas ice storm was due to trees. See a common thread? And who do these trees belong to? Are these trees within the right of way or easement?

Now here is the preparation part. Under normal operating conditions, how many tree-caused outages arise from within the right-of-way each year? How many from outside? During a major storm does this ratio change? Are most of the problem trees outside the right of way? What is the total system tree exposure – that is how many trees are there that on failure could hit your lines? Sorry, but if your answer is a lot that doesn’t even represent a good bunt. You need hard facts, irrefutable facts.

Would you not prefer to go to bat with this kind of information? Over 90% of trees that caused an outage were outside the right of way. Your system is exposed to over 4.2 million trees that could on failure, strike the line. These danger trees, which average 1995 trees per mile, are located outside the right of way. Natural tree mortality will claim about 72,000 of those 4.2 million trees annually. You need to evaluate all of them for their potential to interfere with service and ultimately will need to annually remove 16,000 to 24,000 for safety and reliability. Additionally, through examination of thousands of trees that failed and caused a service interruption, you have found that 68% of the trees that caused an interruption are apparently healthy trees.

That’s what I mean by playing hardball. Now it’s our turn to pitch. We can reduce storm damage by increasing the distance between conductors and adjacent trees but this means removing privately owned and community trees. We can also decrease storm damage by increasing the height of poles and towers but this will come at a higher cost. Or we can begin undergrounding if you agree to a 125% rate increase. Which of these do you prefer and when do you want us to start? If you think my intent is to put outspoken critics, politicians and regulators between a rock and a hard place, you’re right. Indeed, the intent is to get them in your shoes, where you live, in that hard place. Your decisions will look a lot better from there.

We live in a regulatory world. We live in a world where politicians are going to tap into current emotional veins. There’s a choice. Let them pitch what they will and standby. Or decide to get into the game; that when we need to go to bat, we’ll be so well prepared there’s a very good chance of hitting one out of the park.

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