If you’ve been in the electric utility business for any amount of time, I’m sure you could, as well as me, see this coming. I’m talking about events in Connecticut. Both United Illuminating (UI) and Connecticut Light and Power (CL&P) are getting push back on their enhanced tree trimming program. Didn’t I write an article about eternal recurrence?

The enhanced tree trimming program grew out of two 2011 events: Hurricane Irene and a snow storm dubbed Snowtober. Both of these storms caused extensive tree failures that are destructive to facilities and cannot be fixed with a simple OCR reset or fuse replacement. Now state Senator Looney is calling UI’s tree trimming “ambitious” and “aggressive.” I wonder what his statements were after the lengthy outages that resulted from these storms. Certainly I recall that criticism from the Governor was so strident and unrelenting that the CEO of CL&P resigned. There were investigations and political pressure put on PURA, the regulator, to ensure that nothing short of an “ambitious” and “aggressive” plan for the reduction of storm related outages was brought forward and implemented.

It could be anticipated that as soon as public resistance to the plan started that political resolve would quiver like quaking aspen leaves in a light breeze.

If you’re wondering whether Senator Looney’s characterization is based on real knowledge of the issue and the utility VM industry let me give you a quote. “Work should be done by an experienced arborist who understands the difference between a healthy and unhealthy tree, not just someone with a chainsaw and pick-up truck.” That’s cunning. You can’t argue the statement. It’s not a direct accusation. Yet the implication, even if borne of ignorance, is damaging to utility credibility and plays well with the public.

So what is the rebuttal to the political sport of utility bashing?

Well there’s a few. First, it behooves the utility to have very good data. Only through good data can you transfer the risk to the regulator and the politicians. I’ve previously said that resolving tree-conductor conflicts is a societal issue. Give the regulator the facts, the benefits to a different approach, quantify the reduction in risks and the risks realized failing implementation and let the regulator decide the course.

I know I’ve stated this before too. I think it is imperative that you can put your tree work in context. That means being able to state the total tree exposure of the electric system. That is the total number of trees that could grow into or fall on conductors. If you decided you needed to be more aggressive in hazard tree identification and removal and estimated you would have to remove an additional 200,000 trees, can you imagine the public reaction? You know before long it would be characterized as a scorched earth policy. The only thing I can think of to decrease the impact of that number is to put it in context. If you could say your system tree exposure is 20,000,000, doesn’t that shift the perception of you from indiscriminate tree butchers or tree haters to resolute, aggressive but reasonable?

For UI and CL&P not only should the total tree exposure be at the tip of tongue but also it should be known what percent of unplanned outages arise from branch failures, hazard trees and healthy, structurally sound trees; the total number of trees overhanging conductors; tree exposure sub-divided by species proclivity for uprooting, stem failures and branch failures. There should be not one hint that you are speculating about what needs to be done and the quantifiable benefits.

Whenever the conflict between trees and conductors is discussed someone raises the topic of undergrounding. Here it’s vital to have the cost at your fingertips. It deflates that argument pretty quickly when you can do as Jim Cole of UI did by stating it would add 42 cents per kilowatt hour to electric rates, increasing rates over 300%. That is the power of good data.

On the other hand, was the regulator to decide in favor of undergrounding, what difference does it make to the utility? In fact, would this demand for increased capital expenditures not be a positive?

I’ve only outlined one approach. I detailed another in a 2005 white paper. It requires a regulatory insistence on improving reliability, particularly during storms. The insistence needs to be backed up by dividing tree owners into cooperators and non-cooperators. Storm costs are then passed on in such a way that reflects the damage reduction attained through the cooperators, placing the greater burden of costs on those responsible for their incurrence. I don’t hold out much hope for this option. The notions of responsibility and accountability seem to be lost in the mists of the 1950s. Nowadays it seems politically incorrect to suggest people bear the burden of their decisions. That puts regulators in a tough spot as they are either elected or political appointees. Anyone forwarding such an approach would see their term as a regulatory Commissioner sharply curtailed.

There’s another approach that is also raised in Connecticut, which I would dearly like to see but I can’t imagine a utility having the intestinal fortitude required to see it through to completion. It may be seen as a declaration of war. Declare that you will bring a suit for damages against tree owners that have refused tree work to utility standards when that tree subsequently fails and damages equipment. As my work has clearly shown, tree-related outages are correlated to two measures of tree exposure. Don’t expect regulatory or political support. It will quail at the first public outcry. You would have to go this alone, preferably as an industry group, proving you cannot be financially penalized for failing to meet reliability targets, whether directly in penalties, in rates or the recovery of restoration costs, if the regulatory framework prevents your exercise of limited available options to comply with and meet reliability expectations. There is somewhat of a precedent. The Federal Supreme Court ruled the California PUC could not compel their utilities to engage in a business that forces them to lose money.

The see-saw between reliability and tree preservation continues. PURA Chairman, Art House hit the nail on the head. “We have to find a balance, and it has to be a delicate one,” he said.

I agree. But where that balance ultimately lands can be shifted with irrefutable data.