Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Law of Unintended Consequences: BG&E Tree Trimming Policies

Today marks day four and counting without power in my house. Hurricane Irene passed through early Sunday morning and tore up the area’s electrical grid. Initial reports were that over 850,000 customers were without power in the immediate aftermath of the storm. I’m not sure how customers are counted. Is a customer just the account holder, or the actual number of people using that account? In our household we have one account holder, but a total of five persons living in the house. If on average each account holder represents about three electricity users than 3 x 850,000 or 2.55 million people are without electricity. That is almost half of Maryland’s 5.5 million people, and there is no firm timetable for complete restoration of services.

The primary causes of the power outages are fallen trees and tree limbs. For the most part the electric poles and wires withstood the winds. But the wires cannot withstand trees being dropped on them. Maryland, including Baltimore County and City (where I live and work) is heavily forested, so almost all power lines have nearby trees. Several years ago Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E) decided to be “proactive” about the hazards that trees pose and sent crews out to trim back tree branches along their right-of-ways. However, as is often the case, the corporate policy makers don’t think through the real-world consequences of their policies. On my property, BG&E’s policies have increased, rather than reduced, the hazards to their power lines. I’m certain that my property is not unique.

The back edge of my property is along a BG&E right-of-way for power lines that feed many of the houses in my neighborhood. Several years ago, I returned home to find BG&E workers high up in the large mature oak trees at the end of my yard, cutting off the branches jutting out in the direction of the power lines. I asked them immediately to leave which they did, but it was too late. The damage had been done.

The tree trimmers insisted that lopping off branches would not harm the trees. That might be true if the trimmers took proper precautions, but it was clear to me that was not the case. The workers simply moved along the right-of-way, from one tree to the next, and did not stop and clean their cutting tools after each tree. There is a fungus in the area that attacks oak trees, and I had already lost several large oak trees in my yard to the fungus. I had to have the remnants of these trees cut down and removed, which is very expensive. A sure way to spread the fungus would be to do exactly what these tree trimmers were doing.

I’m sure that when trimming thousands of trees it would be tedious and time consuming to thoroughly clean cutting tools after every tree. I’m sure that my dentist finds it tedious and time consuming to clean dental instruments after every patient. However, not doing so is guaranteed to spread disease. The large oak trees, clearly many decades old, that BG&E trimmed, caught the fungus and died within a couple of years.

The trees are far from my house and no threat to anything but BG&E’s power lines. I have left them up because it would very expensive for me to have them removed (thousands of dollars), and they were perfectly healthy trees before BG&E mangled them. Through the years the wind and rain have stripped off most of the branches and bark.

Early this summer I called BG&E to explain that the trees are likely to fall on their power lines and recommended that a crew be sent out to remove them. The person answering the phone asked if the trees were touching the power lines. I said no, but I explained that when the trees do fall the power lines would be brought down. The BG&E employee told me that the trees have to be touching and putting tension on the wires before action would be taken. That is BG&E’s policy for dead trees that pose a serious threat to power lines. In contrast, when these same trees were alive and healthy and little threat to the power lines, BG&E had work crews out hacking away at them.

The morning after the storm the first thing I looked at outside were the dead trees. They withstood Irene’s onslaught and are still standing. It will not be Irene, but some other storm in the future that will eventually take them and BG&E’s power lines down. However, thousands of trees throughout the area did fall. I can’t help but wonder how many of those fallen trees were victims not of the storm, but of BG&E’s inane tree trimming program. I also wonder if the tree trimming actually prevented any power outages. With so many people without power due to fallen trees, it is hard for me to imagine that BG&E’s tree trimming programing accomplished much of anything.

Trees are an important part of the environment in Maryland. Even if it were not prohibitively expensive, it would still be undesirable to remove every tree that threatens a power line. However, healthy trees are far less of a threat than dead trees. If BG&E wants to be better prepared for the next storm, they should focus removing the dead trees along their right-of-ways instead of creating more dead trees through careless tree trimming practices.


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