Tdworld 3519 Gettyimage Powerline Fire

Vegetation Management in the News

Dec. 7, 2015
Recently in the news was a story about the jury verdict of negligence in the Las Conchas Fire.

Not infrequently I’ve been accused of being too serious. The serious theme of power line-initiated wildfire risk that has been the subject of the last three articles will resume next month but in the spirit of enjoying a Merry Christmas for this issue, I’ll lighten up.  Oh, don’t worry, the pitchfork is within reach. I’ll still put a few barbs in, just in a lighter way.

A fellow rents a car. He has an accident and returns the car damaged. The rental company informs him he’ll have to pay the damages. He argues his case pointing out he bought insurance coverage. The rental agency informs him the insurance is void because the police report indicates he was drunk at the time of the accident. He argues it’s the agency’s fault because they rented him the car even though he had informed them that he was Irish.

I have an Irish friend who told me this joke. I know it’s not politically correct but there’s a reason I use it.

Recently in the news was a story about the jury verdict of negligence in the Las Conchas Fire. The fire started from a tree that fell into a Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative line. Also named in the suit was Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc. which provides wholesale electricity to the cooperative. The jury concluded Tri-State was 20% responsible. OK now fill in those company names in the above joke. By the way, the jury also placed 5% of the blame on the Forest Service because the tree that fell came from Forest Service land. We have to modify the joke to make the other car owner hold some responsibility for being at the site of the accident.

This decision has scary implications for generators and transmission companies. It suggests that they should not sell to distributors without first satisfying themselves regarding the policies and practices of the distribution company. I suggest Tri-State immediately cancel their contract with the cooperative and shut the power off until they are satisfied that all the cooperatives’ practices are best in class. Hopefully most of the jurors live in the cooperative. (Oops, am I being a Grinch?)

Public reaction to West Penn Power’s request for a rate increase was met with considerable hostility or as the Pennsylvania PUC put it “an inordinate level of consternation, confusion and all-around grousing than typically is met in a base rate proceeding.” It’s the first time in decades West Penn Power has applied to increase rates. The grousing was predominantly about the lack of reliability.

Decades? Hmm? This couldn’t have anything to do with deregulation when the utilities were expected to gain so much by being divested of generation and gaining unheard of efficiencies by having to compete for retail customers that they were prevented from increasing rates for the next ten years? Nor would it have anything to do with the conditions put on the sale of the utility to First Energy, could it?

Do you recall a while back I wrote an article in which I stated “The unvarnished truth relating to trees and electric reliability is you cannot have it all. “ I might have suggested that to believe otherwise falls into the realm of unicorns, magic dragons and pixie dust. Following this theme and the spirit of Christmas I would like to give out an award. It will be called the Hogwart’s Crooked Wand of Unanticipated Consequences Award. This year’s winner is Montgomery County, Maryland council member Roger Berliner. So let me set out what eminently qualifies him for this award. One of the facts supporting the award is Mr. Berliner’s sustained efforts set out below, which may best be described by Stephen Leacock’s statement “he… flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”

Feb. 3, 2011

  • On Wednesday, Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) called for Pepco to return to customers revenue collected after every major power outage since 2007.
  • A Washington Post investigation published in December found that Pepco's day-to-day reliability began declining five years ago and that Pepco ranks at or near the bottom in national surveys of reliability. The average Pepco customer experienced 70 percent more outages than customers of other utilities in major metropolitan areas.
  • Berliner described money Pepco had collected after major outages as "ill-gotten gains."

May 8, 2012

  • Pepco says the number of outages in its system dropped by almost 40 percent last year. It's a far cry from the poor service standards that marred the company the year before.
  • The much-maligned utility says customers in 2011 saw a 39 percent drop in outages from the previous year, and that the length of those outages was cut by 56 percent. After weeklong delays plagued Pepco customers following thunderstorms in 2010, the utility embarked on a wide-ranging plan to upgrade its service reliability.
  • Frequent Pepco critic and Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner says that while these new numbers show Pepco is pointed in the right direction, the utility still has a long way to go
  • Berliner notes that in 2010, Pepco ranked in the bottom quartile nationally when it came to the frequency of outages in its system. Berliner also says many residents in the county feel the utility's tree-trimming program has been too aggressive. He is the co-sponsor of a bill currently being debated that would make clear the rights private land owners have when PEPCO wants to cut a tree on their property.

Aftermath of June 29, 2012 derecho

Apr. 24, 2014

  • Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1) is one of Pepco’s most vocal critics. Berliner spoke out against the company after the Derecho storm of 2011, which left some county residents without power for more than a week after the storm. 
    “I continue to believe that Pepco’s financial returns should be based on its performance. While the number and duration of outages has improved since 2010 and their recent investments and actions have raised them from the lowest quartile nationally, in my view, its overall performance has not risen to the level that justifies an increase in its return on equity,” Berliner said in a statement. “It is still a utility that ranks in the bottom half of all utilities in terms of performance. That is not good enough for the residents of Montgomery County and it should not be good enough for the Commission.”

Sept. 3, 2015

  • Pepco’s tree-cutting operations along and near its high-voltage transmission lines in Potomac drew scorn, legal challenges and enough protest from local homeowners that in June the utility started calling in off-duty Montgomery County police officers to guard its activities.
  • “We find that Pepco regularly takes the ‘Paul Bunyan’ approach, when a ‘Johnny Appleseed’ approach is more appropriate,” council member Roger Berliner told the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC).
  • Berliner told the PSC he also drafted a county bill that would’ve put in place many of the same requirements. But the PSC advised him that the county did not have the authority to put those rules into place.
  • Berliner said the unsuccessful state bill would’ve ensured that Pepco workers “were not capriciously cutting down private property trees.”
  • Berliner worked with District 15 state Sen. Brian Feldman, and state Dels. Aruna Miller, District 15, and Bill Frick, District 16, earlier this year on legislation that would’ve required utilities to follow a set of best practices for tree and vegetation management.

I don’t know what Mr. Berliner thinks would have been achieved by this bill as utilities already employ these practices as is evident in RM 43, which I commented on in last December’s article.

RM 43 requires utilities to prune trees so as to provide at least four years of clearance. However, if obtaining that clearance would result in removing 25% or more of the tree’s crown, then the tree is to be removed. Anyone with a grasp of arboriculture knows that such a requirement for the removal of trees did not arise arbitrarily but coincides with ANSI A300 pruning standards. For those not familiar with pruning standards, the reason for that is that removing 25% or more of a tree in one pruning event results in a very high risk for tree mortality. Obviously, if what the utility is doing results in standing tree carcasses, this increases the risk not only to electric facilities but also to private property and the public.

Then again, given the name of the award, you already know my thoughts, so I’ll let someone else comment. 


  • Finally, there’s the fact that Pepco is “butchering” trees at the request of Councilman Berliner, whose palpable anger in the wake of the January winter storms helped compel Pepco to ramp up its “Enhanced Vegetation Management.” Only a couple months ago, Councilman Berliner seemed pleased with Pepco’s response. In a June interview with WTOP, he said, “They (Pepco) have gotten the message they have to get better. Are they working to get better? I think they are.”
  • It’s not a risk-free world; rather, we live in a world of tradeoffs. In this instance, the wellbeing of hundreds of trees is diametrically opposed to the betterment of electricity service. That’s the tradeoff. And it’s a good one, in my opinion. Last February, Councilman Berliner seemed to agree. Back then, he had power outages and winter storms on his mind. Today, he disagrees, because he has “butchered” trees on his mind. Unfortunately, Councilman Berliner has the power to demand policy changes to track his fickle demands. No wonder Pepco is a basket-case.

OK, let me put down the pitchfork and earnestly say, may you be renewed in the spirit of Christmas; to enter the New Year with optimism and hope.

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