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Appalachian Power Co. ready to take it to the trees

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http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/313007

Appalachian Power Co. ready to take it to the trees

Richard Royal, an employee of Asplundh Tree Expert Co., reduces a paradise tree to logs in the 1700 block of Patterson Avenue in Roanoke recently. Appalachian Power Co. is proposing $30 million in additional tree and vegetation trimming statewide.

Photos by Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times

Richard Royal, an employee of Asplundh Tree Expert Co., reduces a paradise tree to logs in the 1700 block of Patterson Avenue in Roanoke recently. Appalachian Power Co. is proposing $30 million in additional tree and vegetation trimming statewide.

Stepped-up tree clearing efforts could mean new business for some additional tree maintenance companies.

Stepped-up tree clearing efforts could mean new business for some additional tree maintenance companies.

Representatives of Appalachian Power Co. say keeping power lines safe from nearby foliage is an ongoing challenge, and that the company must balance the safety of its lines with the public's desire to live and work in attractive green spaces.

Representatives of Appalachian Power Co. say keeping power lines safe from nearby foliage is an ongoing challenge, and that the company must balance the safety of its lines with the public’s desire to live and work in attractive green spaces.

Under a new strategy, Appalachian will fully trim some circuits every four years and see if problems can be lessened.

Under a new strategy, Appalachian will fully trim some circuits every four years and see if problems can be lessened.

The night high winds tore loose trees and limbs and cut electricity across Southwest Virginia, Appalachian Power Co. was on schedule with its preventative tree-trimming program that is designed to keep such a thing from happening, company spokesman Todd Burns said.

Repair crews found damaged and fallen trees inside maintained rights of way as well as outside the protection zone after what Burns said he hopes was a once-in-a-lifetime event. At the peak, 234,000 Appalachian customers in Virginia, or about 60 percent, were without service, and some people were not reconnected for 11 days.

A similar disruption could happen during any future storm with equally intense winds, Burns said. He said utility officials do not believe any acceptable amount of tree cutting could protect the lines completely.

Put another way, there is no obvious way to clear a large enough space around distribution lines to fully protect the lines and still meet the expectations of residents who want to live and work amid attractive green space, Burns said. Nor would ratepayers who want extremely limited rate increases — or none at all — pay for such a thing, he said.

But within the parameters of aesthetics and cost, the company works hard to clear enough vegetation to protect electrical infrastructure and keep the power on, he said.

Finding just the right balance “is an ongoing struggle for us, and that is no exaggeration,” he said.

For the time being, the company plans to keep rights of way as they are, about 40 feet wide, but trim more linear feet of its distribution network.

Appalachian recently proposed $30 million of additional tree and vegetation trimming in its Virginia service territory, which covers the southwest end of the state. The project, which is unrelated to the catastrophic June 29 storm, is designed to reduce the number of routine tree- and limb-caused electrical interruptions. Virginia is 66 percent covered with trees.

The decision to try to reduce routine outages came after a review of another nonroutine event.

A December 2009 snowstorm damaged trees and cut off 100,000 Virginia customers from electricity. Although the power stayed on for a majority of Roanoke Valley customers, many people in the far southwest corner of the state were in the dark, the longest for 18 days, Appalachian has said.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission staff and Appalachian Power personnel took a look at the company’s management of trees and shrubs that grow near its more than 26,000 miles of distribution lines, most of them overhead, to feed energy from substations to customers in Virginia.

The outcome was a proposed tree-trimming surge. The project, which is awaiting state approval, is designed to see whether a change in the timing of vegetation work would improve system reliability. It could start this year or next year and take several years. A hearing is scheduled next month.

On average, Appalachian Power customers in Virginia experience about two electrical outages a year with a combined length of eight hours.

Right now, Appalachian automatically trims the vegetation of the first leg of each distribution circuit every three years, but leaves the rest of the circuit to be trimmed when performance metrics indicate a need. The main metrics are a circuit’s customer count, outage history, complaint history and vegetation profile.

In select locations, a lot of vegetation comes out or dies. For instance, crews maintaining Appalachian Power’s Fort Lewis circuit serving the Twelve O’Clock Knob area trimmed 863 trees, removed 2,473 trees, cut 10.62 acres of brush and treated 102.78 acres of brush with herbicide during the past five years.

However, under the use of performance metrics, not every circuit gets trimmed because the metrics don’t indicate a need in some locations.

Under its new proposal, Appalachian wants to trim a sampling of 30 circuits end-to-end on a schedule of once every four years to see whether outages will occur less often there. If the pilot brings benefits deemed worth the cost, Appalachian could propose cycle-trimming all circuits.

Appalachian predicts the pilot is likely to show “significant reliability benefits,” Philip Wright, vice president of distribution operations for Appalachian, said in testimony filed with regulators.

However, he said, the costs of going to cycle trimming “are not insignificant.”

Vegetation management expenditures — which peaked at $38 million in 2008 and since then averaged $28 million a year — would rise by $5 million this year, $10 million in 2013 and 2014 and $5 million in 2015 during the pilot period.

It is unclear whether the initiative represents a potential bonanza for tree maintenance companies. Appalachian routinely contracts with Asplundh Tree Expert Co. for services. Burns said additional work would be bid out, meaning other companies would get a shot at getting power company business.

State regulators want public comment on both the concept of cycle trimming and the issue of how much more tree cutting ratepayers might be willing to pay for. There won’t be a rate increase soon in any event under the proposal, if approved. Appalachian proposes it bill customers later.

The plan has support from advocates of good tree stewardship who stress that the number of tree-electrical line conflicts in populated areas could be reduced if property owners planted trees that mature at less than 25 feet tall.

Paul Revell, urban and community forestry coordinator for the Virginia Department of Forestry, said tree selection is a highly important issue. When people criticize utilities over the unsightly tree trimming or because trees in urban areas fall on power lines, often the root cause is “the wrong tree has been planted in the wrong place,” Revell said.

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Written by vaphc

September 4, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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