300,000 Homes Without Power – Was Inadequate Tree Trimming a Factor?

An inch of ice is dangerous at any time, but when that much ice accumulates on power lines and tree branches near the power lines, devastation can occur. This is what happened in northeastern New York beginning the evening of December 11th through the day on the 12th.

At the peak of the storm’s aftermath, 300,000 household in New York State had lost power. What’s worse, thousands were in the dark and without heat for a week following the event, with temps in the teens and 20s. It will be something talked about for years – the Ice Storm of 2008.

Cold, tired people compared notes during the aftermath – When did your power come back on? How much water did you get in your basement? Where did you get that generator?

Why was the blackout this widespread and long lasting?

There is no doubt that an inch of ice is a significant, yet not unprecedented, event for this part of New York. So, perhaps some power lines would snap under the weight of the ice. Surprisingly, that may not have been the major cause of the outages. Rather, it was whole trees and lengthy branches near the lines that cracked and fell into the lines, bringing down entire neighborhoods in one fell swoop. Did the utilities affected – National Grid and New York State Electric and Gas (“NYSEG”) – do everything within their power to keep their lines clear from limbs and other vegetation? It seems highly unlikely.

According to an unusual press release issued jointly by the Commission and the Consumer Protection Board on December 19th, when the Commission approved the merger of National Grid and KeySpan, it adopted a proposal by National Grid to commit to spending approximately $1.4 billion over a five-year period to improve transmission and distribution reliability, which includes tree-trimming management and environmental maintenance. On the other hand, the press release stated that “evidence has shown that NYSEG has actually decreased its tree-trimming expenditures over the past five years, which is cause for increased scrutiny of performance and overall environmental management by this utility.”

The press release went on to remind electric utilities that they are required by the Commission to file with the Commission long-range vegetation management plans “to effectively manage transmission facilities right-of-ways in order to minimize power outages due to encroaching tree limbs or overgrown vegetation at the edge of utility right-of-ways.” However, based on the visibly noticeable intertwining of trees and power lines throughout the Capital Region, for example, it is impossible to believe that National Grid and NYSEG are properly managing the vegetation or tree limbs or that the Commission is enforcing its own rules.

According to the joint PSC/CPB press release, CPB (whose utility intervention staff has been allowed wither in recent years) plans to review utility response to concerns relating to tree-trimming and vegetation management procedures and suggest improvements, if necessary. In addition, 60 days after restoration is completed, utilities are required to file a self-assessment of their restoration efforts with the Commission. Commission Staff will also conduct its own assessment of the utilities’ restoration efforts and report to the Commission its findings and/or recommendations. With its 500+ employees, most of which are located in the Capital Region, couldn’t the Commission have investigated these obvious maintenance violations, taken photographs of the worst hit areas, and checked utility maintenance records to see if the utilities had been prudently trimming, instead of waiting for the utilities’ self assessment and self serving report?

Tree-trimming is, admittedly, a time consuming process which requires much manpower and the expenses related to tree-trimming may be costs that the utilities do not want to incur at times when their rates are set by the PSC at a “macro” level for multiple years without regard to specific expenses, when utilities are encouraged to cut costs and keep the savings, and when under the PSC’s notion of “performance regulation,”consequences of failing to meet reliability standards are agreed to in advance by the utilities. Better to dispense with scheduled trimming, adopt a new algorithm for selective (and cheaper) trimming and blame Acts of God when the overhanging trees harvest the vulnerable lines and poles.

A root cause analysis might identify the PSC’s regulatory style as a contributing factor, as the Commission itself recognized in the aftermath of a pedestrian’s electrocution in the streets of New York City, when it issued an order requiring utilities to do more safety inspections of their facilities:

Over the past 10 to 15 years, we and other regulatory commissions across the nation have moved from traditional one-year litigated rate cases to multi-year performance-based rate plans. The purpose of these plans is to allow for rate stability while allowing the utilities greater flexibility in managing their operations. Staff’s investigation into this matter suggests that the utilities may not have been placing enough attention and emphasis on safety matters. For example, we were surprised and disappointed to learn that three of the major electric utilities have conducted no stray voltage testing and have no plans to do so. **** The utilities are responsible for ensuring that they are maximizing the safety of their electric systems. The fact that some utilities have done nothing regarding stray voltage suggests that the focus of utility management may need realignment.

PULP believes that the results of these inquiries into the latest utility failures will fall into at least one of two categories: that the utilities could have done more trimming on a regular basis to mitigate the extent of the outages or that the Commission dropped the ball by either assuming some utilities would continue past vegetation management practices under multi year ratemaking without explicit requirements, or, if there were requirements for some utilities, by not enforcing the requirements. One wonders if any PSC members lost power at home for an extended period of time from the Ice Storm of 2008, and if so, whether this inconvenience will lead to long overdue enforcement of the utilities’ tree-trimming and vegetation management requirements.

Lou Manuta

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