Trimming trees can nip outages

The Electric Service Reliability Report for 2017 released on July 31 by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission shows what it describes as regressed overall reliability performance by the state’s electric distribution companies.

However, those companies don’t deserve the black eye that use of the description “regressed reliability performance” inflicts.

That’s because heavy blame for the stated reliability decline, compared with 2015 and 2016, rests with severe storm activity rather than performance issues within the respective companies.

Tied to that, the report focuses on an issue that should continue to be a priority not only for electric companies but also for private property owners who face possible negative impacts from that issue.

The issue is trees — healthy trees as well as deteriorated ones.

According to the PUC, about 50 percent of the total minutes of service interruptions last year — 400 million customer-minutes — were due to fallen trees or tree limbs, much of that during storms.

Referring to the reliability report, the online news and information service Capitolwire observed correctly that “it should come as no surprise that enhanced tree cutting and trimming-related initiatives are part of the report’s recommendations.”

Electric distribution companies deal with limitations regarding tree-trimming. The PUC report notes that “EDCs are limited in what can be done outside of existing (utility) rights-of-way as in most cases they have to seek permission from landowners to be able to address trees outside the right-of-way.”

Sometimes obtaining such permission is easy, sometimes it’s not.

The report observes that “EDCs may need to reach out to external resources and stakeholders . . . when severe storm activity increases.”

But the report also acknowledges that there has been an increase in tree-trimming activity beyond historic levels for many EDCs, and that’s good news for electric customers.

Most people who have traveled area highways in the aftermath of storms can attest to the tree damage for which those storms were responsible. Unfortunately, people have died or been injured seriously when their vehicles were struck by falling trees or big limbs.

Trimming or removing trees that pose possible danger to utility service and people’s lives is in everyone’s best interests, but it should be done with a commitment to eye appeal; the result shouldn’t have the appearance of a “chainsaw massacre.”

According to the PUC report, 1,309,960 customers were affected by reportable outage events last year, compared with 779,512 customers in 2016 and 619,474 in 2015. Of 2017’s affected customers, the PUC said 313,000 were customers of Pennsylvania Electric Co.

Characterized as reportable outage events are disruptions involving

5 percent of total customers or 2,500 customers, whichever is less, for six or more consecutive hours.

The PUC said none of the 50 events that took place last year was a “long-duration outage event,” which the PUC defines as an event that causes outages of more than 48 hours for a significant number of customers.

The report’s most important finding, then, seems to be that electric companies are doing a commendable job in maintaining service for their customers, and that if the challenges regarding trees could be made less daunting, future yearly reports might show lower negative reliability numbers.

Addressing the tree issue must remain a stepped-up objective.

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