State Orders Change in Tree Trimming by United Illuminating

The state’s energy regulator has ordered United Illuminating to make several changes to its tree trimming programs, changes that the energy provider has argued would make it harder for the company to ensure reliable service.

According to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, United Illuminating relies too heavily on a program designed to respond to pressing and dangerous situations, for example when a branch is touching a power line, and is in effect using the program to replace regular tree trimming.

In response, the state authority directed that the UI limit its targeted risk management program to priority situations where there is a safety concern, or during storm response, and that the energy provider stop using the targeted program as a substitute for the company’s approved regular maintenance plan.

PURA further ordered UI to stop using a standard of 8 feet to the side of wires, 10 feet below, and 15 feet above for the targeted trimming unless it was necessary to resolve a situation of direct contact or potential burning. 

In a written reply, United Illuminating responded that the regulator’s order was “tantamount to eliminating the [targeted] program in its entirety.” The company warned that the decision would frustrate the company’s vegetation management programs, which are part of its efforts to enhance the system’s reliability by clearing trees and branches that could damage power lines.

“Our Targeted Risk Management program addresses real hazards on our system, while supporting UI’s long record of industry-leading service reliability for customers,” UI spokesman Ed Crowder said in an email. “We will review our program and make changes as necessary to safely maintain a high level of reliability in compliance with PURA’s decision.”

United Illuminating began its targeted risk management program of tree-trimming in January 2019, the company told PURA, because there were many trees in direct contact with its utility lines. According to UI, the company only used the program when trees were in direct contact with a line, or showed visible signs of burns.

The company said the targeted program is “extremely prudent and cost-effective” and that it complements the regular maintenance program.

“The (targeted) program was designed to provide adequate tree to wire clearance on targeted circuits until the Company’s next regularly scheduled UPZ Program pruning and removal, which is the standard vegetation management specification that provides the greatest system reliability,” UI wrote the state regulator.

But PURA ruled instead that UI that the vegetation problem was caused by a failure to implement regular tree trimming.

“The existence of so many trees that are either in direct contact with an energized conductor or that are showing signs of burning is evidence of a deficiency in the company’s main vegetation management program,” the PURA decision read.

UI began its current cycle of the utility protection zone program – the regular, preventative tree clearing – in 2014, and the plan called for the company to address all of its higher-load “three-phase” circuits by 2019. 

According to the state authority, UI has still not addressed many of those circuits, and some haven’t had regular trimming work since 2010 or 2011 — reporting claims by UI that notification requirements, traffic control costs and higher-than expected tree density had caused delays in regular maintenance, and that other circuits had taken priority for reliability or safety reasons.

UI denied that the targeted program was meant to supplant its regular maintenance program, or that it was being used as a replacement. The company also criticized PURA for changing its proposal for a four-year regular maintenance cycle for higher-load circuits to a six-year cycle – which UI said allowed for more tree growth, and thus more problems that needed to be addressed between regular trims.

UI also said that PURA’s directive that the targeted program be used only in emergency or storm recovery is flawed, because the program is not used in storm recovery.

“While the Authority’s decision will placate the complaints of a vocal minority that oppose the TRM program, the Authority should be aware that many municipalities welcome the Company’s vegetation management programs in their communities, including TRM, because those programs enhance system reliability for their constituents,” UI wrote.

PURA’s decision to “terminate” the targeted program, UI wrote, will discontinue targeted trimming work that is either ongoing or scheduled in Ansonia, Bridgeport, Derby, East Haven, Fairfield, Milford, New Haven, Trumbull, West Haven and Woodbridge.

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