It often takes a major adverse event to enact change. For the utility vegetation management (UVM) industry, our “event” came in the form of the Northeast Blackout of 2003. A year later, after the final report on the widespread blackout was issued, UVM practices were brought under scrutiny as a primary cause for the event.
At that time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered transmission facility owners and operators in each of the lower 48 states to provide detailed information on their UVM practices. The findings indicated that significant changes were imperative for both public utilities and oversight agencies to avoid similar occurrences in the future.
While the blackout is old news, it is worth acknowledging for its long-term impact on UVM and the way utilities ensure electric reliability for customers.
Layers of Regulations
Since the blackout, regulations have been put in place at the federal, state, regional and local levels. Most notably, the North American Electric Reliability Council's (NERC's) FAC-003 reliability standard, adopted in June 2007, applies to all owners of transmission lines from coast to coast. The standard already has gone through one revision and another revision is currently in process.
Beyond NERC, UVM regulatory oversight at the more localized levels becomes increasingly diverse (and complicated), especially with the number of variables and threats that exist in different parts of the country. These can include regional propensities for hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, wildfires, mudslides, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Like the blackout, many regions can point to these types of events as catalysts for change. Additionally, different varieties of indigenous vegetation found throughout the United States also can impact regulations at the regional, state and local levels.
With the layers of regulatory bodies in the United States, making sense of policies can be a bit daunting. Each state faces its own challenges and develops rules to accommodate their own circumstances. These rules and regulations can include any combination of requirements for clearance distances, clearance cycles, mandatory notifications, fire prevention, storm hardening, commission audits and more.
For the purpose of this article, we will look at just a few examples of progressive UVM state-level regulatory environments: California, Florida and Illinois. Each of these states faces their own challenges and have found ways to enact change in attempt to ensure system reliability.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 2010's Assessment of Forests and Rangelands, at least 2.35 million acres (951,015 hectares) of the state have been impacted by wildfires in the past.
Campfires, vehicles, arson and lightning all share the blame for these destructive incidents, but oftentimes power lines take much of the heat, even though they account for only 1% to 3% of wildfires.
Because of the threat of wildfires, strategies for fire prevention are updated annually and include input from agencies, partners, stakeholders and the public with the goal of minimizing the effects of wildfires on the state's economy and ecosystems. Partnerships between California's public utilities and fire-prevention agencies are essential to prevention efforts and have resulted in some of the most stringent UVM regulations in the United States.
The state's General Order 95, Rule 35 requires that minimum prescribed vegetation conductor clearances must be maintained at all times.
With negative press and past lawsuits alleging potentially improper power line maintenance for several wildfires, many of California's utilities have stepped up their game in the past two decades, taking a much more proactive and aggressive approach to their UVM programs. Because California's indigenous vegetation is often fast-growing, a proactive UVM plan, in some cases, can go as far as to include an annual work cycle for vegetation around transmission and distribution lines to ensure compliance with state regulations. This is as opposed to a cycle of three or more years, common in other states.
The threat of severe weather in Florida, including hurricanes, has caused this state to focus its regulatory efforts more on ensuring electric reliability for customers in the aftermath of storms through storm-hardening initiatives. Tree limbs are among the most common reasons for power outages in the state.
After the 2004 and 2005 hurricane season, the Florida Public Service Commission mandated that the state's electric utilities shorten their UVM cycles to three years on their backbone primary feeders. The Commission enforces this rule by requiring each utility in its jurisdiction to provide an annual Reliability Report, due March 1 for the preceding year. According to Rule 25-6.0455, reliability must include the total number of outage events categorized by cause and average service-restoration time.
Reliability Reports are public records and posted online to ensure transparency into the UVM practices of utilities in the state. See www.flrules.gov to view the rules outlined by the Florida Public Service Commission
Mandatory Notification Process
Almost nothing evokes more emotion in people than the love for the trees on their property. Unfortunately, it's inevitable that those beloved trees regularly come into conflict with safety when those trees are planted beneath the power lines, often putting customers and utility companies at odds.
In 2001, a law was passed in Illinois because of the combined efforts of communities, citizens and organized groups that wanted to protect the consumer rights from unnecessary utility tree clearance. This law, which requires notification take place “no less than 21 days or more than 90 days before the activities begin,” put Illinois on the map as the state with one of the strictest tree-pruning notification laws.
Even though notification activities can be costly, utilities are required to follow the rules. Fortunately, in terms of emergency cleanup, the laws are more lenient. Section 411.20 of the Illinois Administrative Code also protects utilities from the effects of customer refusals, stating that damage is deemed unpreventable when “the jurisdictional entity has not been allowed or permitted by a governmental authority or property owner to implement such practices or actions.”
Benefits of Proactive UVM
At a time when our industry is highly scrutinized and widely regulated, why risk the penalties and other consequences of noncompliance by cutting corners to cut costs?
Planning and implementing a comprehensive UVM program is without question a huge undertaking — and a critical element of any utility's operational efficiency and reliability scores. Most utilities recognize vegetation management as a significant expense, which it normally is. But when decisions are made, at higher levels, to defer maintenance, the vegetation itself does not acknowledge this bureaucracy and simply continues to grow. The larger and more prevalent those trees and brush then become, the more costly it is to catch up later.
Additionally, the problem with postponing vegetation management activity is that it quite simply costs more to address the issues further down the line than it would to address them now. At some point, there's an inevitable conflict in the economic decision between reducing labor and materials costs today and incurring extensive service-restoration costs tomorrow. Utilities can strategically remove vegetation upfront for a lot less money than they would spend to address the same trees year after year in the future.
At this point, most utilities have been hit with new and different regulations. Sometimes these new rules, especially at the state level, can be a bit overwhelming. The typical first reaction is, “How are we going to comply with that?” Or maybe more often, “How are we going to pay for that?” If you find yourself in this situation, reach out to national organizations like the Utility Arborist Association or the International Society of Arboriculture. These organizations can leverage the experience of their members to help brainstorm new ideas or offer suggestions of the land mines to avoid. There are also third-party consultants who make a living by solving other people's problems.
Standards and regulations for UVM programs are here to stay. By being proactive and staying ahead of regulations — even if your state isn't enforcing stricter mandates yet — you might be able to help protect against the next “wardrobe malfunction” for the industry.
Todd Jones is the COO at ACRT Inc., responsible for operational oversight of the company's UVM consulting and training projects for all of ACRT's clients. He serves on the ACRT board of directors, steering committee, and nominating and governance committee, and is a member of the Utility Arborist Association's editorial committee.
CALIFORNIA PUBLIC RESOURCE CODE, SECTION 4293
The California Public Resource Code Section 4293 requires that:
Except as otherwise provided in Sections 4294 to 4296, inclusive, any person that owns, controls, operates or maintains any electrical transmission or distribution line upon any mountainous land, or in forest-covered land, brush-covered land or grass-covered land shall, during such times and in such areas as are determined to be necessary by the director or the agency, which has primary responsibility for the fire protection of such areas, maintain a clearance of the respective distances which are specified in this section in all directions between all vegetation and all conductors which are carrying electric current:
- For any line which is operating at 2,400 V or more, but less than 72,000 V, 4 feet.
- For any line which is operating at 72,000 V or more, but less than 110,000 V, 6 feet.
- For any line which is operating at 110,000 V or more, 10 feet.
FLORIDA RELIABILITY REPORT, RULE 25-6.0343
Vegetation management is addressed specifically in the mandatory Reliability Report under rule 25-6.0343:
Each municipal electric utility and rural electric cooperative shall report, at a minimum, the following information pertaining to the utility's vegetation management efforts:
- A description of the utility's policies, guidelines, practices and procedures for vegetation management, including programs addressing appropriate planting, landscaping and problem tree-removal practices for vegetation management outside of road rights-of-way or easements, and an explanation as to why the utility believes its vegetation management practices are sufficient.
- The quantity, level and scope of vegetation management planned and completed for transmission and distribution facilities.
THE ILLINOIS PUBLIC UTILITIES ACT, SECTION 8-505.1
According to this excerpt from Section 8-505.1 of the Illinois Public Utilities Act for non-emergency vegetation management activities:
The electric public utility giving the direct and published notices required in subsection (a)(2) shall provide notified customers and property owners with (i) a statement of the vegetation management activities planned, (ii) the address of a website and a toll-free telephone number at which a written disclosure of all dispute resolution opportunities and processes, rights, and remedies provided by the electric public utility may be obtained, (iii) a statement that the customer and the property owner may appeal the planned vegetation management activities through the electric public utility and the Illinois Commerce Commission, (iv) a toll-free telephone number through which communication may be had with a representative of the electric public utility regarding the vegetation management activities, and (v) the telephone number of the Consumer Affairs Officer of the Illinois Commerce Commission. The notice shall also include a statement that circuit maps and common addresses of the area to be affected by the vegetation management activities are on file with the office of the mayor of an affected municipality or his or her designee and the office of the county board chairman of an affected county or his or her designee.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
North American Electric Reliability Corp.
Utility Arborist Association
For a full list of utility commissions and contacts, visit the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions at www.naruc.org.
Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission
Illinois Commerce Commission
Florida Public Service Commission
Public Utility Commission of Ohio
Public Utility Commission of Texas
California Public Utilities Commission
Tennessee Regulatory Authority