Holding the line

Companies are taking more aggressive steps to prevent power problems - like ones that crippled the Northeast (grid problems) and the Baltimore region (storms) last year - from repeating.

August 08, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

It was raining sawdust and pine chips in Thomas Knapik's back yard.

Knapik, who has lived in his house in suburban Bowie for 37 years, watched as tree trimmer Abraham Escobar, in spiked boots with a rope around his waist, straddled the tip of a dead 70-foot pine and sliced off chunks with a chain saw.

The tree was singled out for removal by a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. tree service contractor on a backyard inspection - part of more aggressive efforts by utilities in Maryland and around the nation to manage tree growth near power lines, on and off utility-owned land, to prevent or minimize electric outages.

"The whole tree is likely to come over in a windstorm," said Bill Rees, BGE's supervisor of forestry and right-of-way management. "It would come across [the power] lines and short-circuit them."

Ever since the first wire was connected to the first pole, trees have caused outages. The problem has only grown with decades of booming development as builders and property owners planted screens of fast-growing trees, often too close to electric lines for utilities' comfort.

But last year's historic blackout in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and Canada, and widespread outages on the East Coast after a devastating tropical storm focused renewed attention on the vulnerability of the nation's power grids, including what utilities were - and weren't - doing to protect their lines.

Observers, including regulators and consumer advocates, believe executives watching the quarterly bottom line tightened the purse strings on system maintenance, including pruning, said Richard Cowart, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit technical assistance adviser to governments. It's a view utilities dispute.

"Power companies concerned about improving their short-term financials also started to be very careful in terms of expense across-the-board, and that would include routine maintenance such as tree trimming, or line upgrades at the distribution level," Cowart said.

A joint U.S.-Canadian task force that investigated last August's widespread blackout pinpointed untrimmed trees as the immediate cause. Overloaded power lines belonging to Ohio's FirstEnergy Corp. sagged onto trees beneath that had been allowed to grow too tall.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees high-voltage transmission lines, subsequently ordered the nation's utilities in April to file reports on their tree-pruning practices.

The findings also prompted the North American Electric Reliability Council to begin requiring independent grid operators, such as the PJM Interconnection, which oversees the grid in Maryland and seven other states, to monitor and report on tree contact with lines. Data are not available.

"In the last month or so, there's been a redoubled effort on the part of utilities to assure that transmission line pathways are free of trees that could trigger a blackout," said Bryan Lee, a spokesman for FERC.

In Maryland, regulators are looking for better management of privately owned trees that could interfere with lower-voltage distribution lines, those that carry power directly into homes and businesses.

No power for week

The problems came to the forefront when Tropical Storm Isabel swept through the state in September. The storm, one of the worst to strike this area in at least 50 years, left more than a million Marylanders without electricity, some for more than a week. The cause: primarily uprooted trees and branches on private property falling into distribution lines in unprecedented numbers.

"If anything has changed, post-Isabel, it may be that the public and everyone sees what trees can do," said Steve Woerner, BGE's manager of electric system operations.

In June, the Maryland Public Service Commission ordered utilities to work on a plan to manage privately owned trees near power lines and do a better job of educating the public about the hazards of planting trees close to utility rights of way.

The commission has also ordered its engineering staff and the electric utilities to continue meeting with the Maryland Electric Reliability Tree Trimming Council, made up of representatives of the utilities, the state Department of Natural Resources and others. The PSC is asking the group to recommend ways to manage privately owned trees, including those that might be otherwise healthy but could pose a danger in storms because of their proximity to lines. Some options might include replacing or selectively pruning trees.

Though utilities file reports with the PSC on outages affecting more than 100,000 people, they are not required to report the cause. BGE says trees typically cause about 20 percent of outages but that the percentage dips in years without severe weather and rises in years when storms leave tree roots weakened. Last year, tree-related outages rose to 26 percent, excluding those caused by Tropical Storm Isabel.

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