Utilities trim trees near power lines or risk being fined

ByABC News
August 11, 2008, 11:54 PM

— -- A nationwide order to trim trees near power lines could decrease significantly the kinds of power outages that plunge whole states into darkness, energy industry experts say.

"We have confidence it will have an impact," says Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group that represents private utilities.

"Now for the first time ever you can be formally sanctioned and penalized and have to pay serious money" for letting trees grow into lines, Owen says.

Trees falling onto wires in storms or wires sagging in the heat into tree limbs are to blame for most of the major U.S. blackouts going back to 1996, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (or NERC). And the Institute estimates that 90% of weather-related outages are caused by trees hitting power lines.

Still, mandatory tree-trimming did not gain momentum until Aug. 14, 2003, when transmission lines owned by FirstEnergy Corp. in Ohio came into contact with tree limbs and triggered the shutdown of 21 power plants in three minutes in the Eastern USA and Canada.

The massive outage cut electricity to 50 million people, some of whom were without power for days.

In 2005, Congress passed a bill requiring tree-trimming, but it was not enforced until 2007 to give utilities time to comply.

It was not until this summer that NERC, which administers the law, began fining utilities that have not moved aggressively enough to comply.

The first two fines totaling $255,000 were issued in June, against Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and MidAmerican Energy Co. Fines can go as high as $1 million per day.

MidAmerican agreed to pay its fine.

"Our focus is maintaining a clearance around those conductors so the transmission lines can be operated safely to their design capabilities," says David Hilt, vice president and director of compliance at NERC. "We're not concerned about health of the trees or aesthetics."

Utilities say they have always had crews working all year to cut thousands of trees along hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines. But with the threat of fines of up to $1 million a day, they say they are moving more aggressively.