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Trees, what a powerful knockout

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Trees, what a powerful knockout

by Laura Vanderkam,
November 30th -0001

Two weeks ago, for millions of Americans celebrating the Fourth of July, the phrase “oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light” had new meaning. With the power out following a freak storm that swept across the East Coast, dawn was the first time since the twilight’s last gleaming they could see anything at all.

  • Column-Trees-what-a-powerful-knockout-GP1QPHT4-x-large.jpgBy Jack Gruber,, USA TODAY

    Sleepy Hollow Road: Crews work to remove large fallen trees in Falls Church, Va. After the storms of June 29, more than 4 million households lost power in the region.


By Jack Gruber,, USA TODAY

Sleepy Hollow Road: Crews work to remove large fallen trees in Falls Church, Va. After the storms of June 29, more than 4 million households lost power in the region.

Unfortunately, with 100-degree temperatures, the rising sun was a mixed blessing. A major culprit for the multiday outage? Trees falling on power lines, which happens after many storms, especially in woodsy suburban areas where people love their cool, shady trees, but then complain when the power lines go down. It turns out that, when it comes to the electric grid’s reliability, trees pose a dilemma — giving on one hand and taking on the other.

Fortunately, there are wise solutions that can maximize the benefit and minimize the risk from our urban and suburban forests, if we’re more mindful of what it means to be stewards of our environment.

Most of us view trees, primarily, as pretty things to look at. Utility companies, on the other hand, view them in more complex ways. In a broad sense, trees prevent outages. By shading buildings and moderating interior temperatures, they reduce demand for air conditioning during peak times. In their absence, utilities might not have the capacity to maintain full power.

But trees can also wreak havoc when they fall. As Michael Hyland, senior vice president for engineering at the American Public Power Association, notes, “When you have a tree come across a line, anything downstream from that is going to lose electricity.”

There are a lot of trees out there — Hyland, who lives in Maryland, lost three in the storm — and all it takes is a few branches falling in key places to put the lights out. After the recent storms, more than 4 million households lost power — in many cases, for several days.

Unhappy customers

That makes for unhappy customers and unhappy utilities because, as Hyland puts it, “When the customer is out of power, the utility meter isn’t spinning either.” Consequently, most utilities have programs to trim or remove trees that could pose a danger.

Joey Vallarian, spokesperson for Duquesne Light in southwestern Pennsylvania, says that his utility “has a vigorous vegetation management program that routinely and systematically trims trees in our (right of way) to help prevent outages during storms.” He notes that “it is not foolproof” — a massive storm like June’s can blow branches, trees, or any object great distances — “but does help tremendously.”

The catch? Homeowners complain about having their prize trees cut or pruned, even if many utilities have arborists on call to ensure trees are trimmed according to best practices (for example, cutting branches in a way that trains the tree to grow away from the line). And perhaps a bigger problem is that tree cutting is a seasonal business. That means that utilities hire contractors to do the work — and contractors are an easy budget line to cut in tight times. Maintenance is neglected, and the result can be more outages.

Partly for these reasons, after every major blackout, people propose moving lines underground. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray called for Pepco to do just that after the recent storm.

The trouble is that underground wiring is expensive, costing about 10 times as much as above-ground wiring, says Hyland. Plus, while outages are less frequent with underground lines, the outages last longer, because utility workers can’t easily spot and fix trouble.

Long-term solutions

The best long-term solution to the dilemma of trees is to be proactive with new construction and landscaping projects. When trees aren’t in a completely natural environment, “the kind of care they need is heightened by the fact that they’re competing with power lines, with concrete, with households,” says Sean Barry, spokesperson for the Arbor Day Foundation. “We can’t take it for granted that trees will survive and thrive without attention.” To get the benefits of shade while minimizing the risk of limbs falling on lines, you need to put, as the foundation has titled a campaign, the “Right Tree in the Right Place.”

Here’s what that means: First, choose species that have evolved to deal with the weather your region gets. Second? Consider height. Put tall shady oaks by buildings, where they can keep you cool. Plant lofty spruces and pines outside your windows so you can hear the wind whistling through. Choose shorter trees, such as crabapple and dogwoods, to put near or under lines. The trees’ height when mature are often less than 20 feet — meaning that, from a geometrical perspective, they can’t fall down on the lines.

After the hurricanes of 2004, the Orlando Utilities Commission in Florida did something similar, working with the city to plant tall trees away from lines and shorter trees under them. Result?

“Our reliability statistics have continued to climb,” says Wayne Zimmerman, manager of construction and maintenance. Costs are stable. “And we still have a beautiful tree canopy.”

That’s good for cash-strapped cities — and for anyone amazed, after the recent storm, how people lived through summers before AC.

Laura Vanderkam, author of the new book All the Money in the World, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

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Written by vaphc

July 18, 2012 at 5:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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