Regulatory Changes to UVM Activities in the U.S.

Regulatory Changes to UVM Activities in the U.S.

by Will Porter, Director of Consulting

CN Utility Consulting (CNUC) Director of Consulting Will Porter wrote an article Regulatory Changes to Utility Vegetation Management (UVM) Activities in the U.S., which was published in the May/June issue of the Utility Arborist Association Newsline.

CN Utility Consulting (CNUC) is currently in the process of reviewing federal and state changes in the laws and regulations that drive utility vegetation management (UVM). A past review was completed in 2009 and, as predicted, it is apparent that the federal government, the state utility commissions, and other regulatory authorities have stepped up their oversight. The changes can be characterized as three primary types: (1) reliability, (2) system resilience, and (3) customer service.


The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) January 2013 (updated March 2014) report, “Before and After the Storm,” reviewed several recent UVM reports and came to the conclusion that most experts in the industry believe utilities are focusing too much on clearances and not enough on the trees that actually cause the outages. Based on their review, EEI made the following two recommendations as the most promising advice for the industry:

■ Find the true cause of outages and employ necessary vegetation management and

■ Coordinate with property owners and local officials to plant and replace downed vegetation that is most conducive to system reliability (EEI, 2014, p.11) (Abi-Samra, 2014).

The Gap between EEI Recommendations & Root-Cause Analysis of Outages

Given these recommendations are coming from preeminent sources in the utility industry, it is worth reviewing what they are suggesting and whether the advice is being taken.

The first recommendation is presented by EEI as an answer to cyclical-, vegetation clearance-centered programs that are unsuccessful at providing acceptable electric reliability. Many utility experts believe the common practice of achieving clearances at the time of maintenance does not sufficiently fulfill the reliability expectations of utilities, their customers, and regulators. The EEI report goes on to say that the UVM industry has taken the wrong approach with strict adherence to specified clearances on a cyclical basis. The missing ingredients: removing trees (the trees that cause outages) and pruning branches (the branches that cause outages).

The second EEI recommendation involving tree replacement is a soft lob to one of the most endemic factors of UVM decision-making: the public’s negative reactions to necessary UVM work. The public’s negativity towards UVM has become linked to environmental causes that are supported by not only the media, but also the instructive opinions of academic institutions and the rules issued by commissions and legislatures. This association has driven UVM programs out of the business of routinely removing mature trees before they become hazards to pruning only for specified clearances, if even that much. This is evident to such an extent that even conditions like widespread Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) or mountain pine beetle kill cannot reverse the line clearance specifications of UVM programs that are categorically avoiding widespread large tree removal. Ironically, large tree removal isn’t about getting rid of trees or ruining the environment; it’s about engaging with the environment, converting the corridor to a more appropriate land use, and wisely managing trees adjacent to the corridor. The second EEI recommendation, which promotes engagement of customers and local officials, is a constructive way for utilities to become good environmental stewards.

This author agrees with these recommendations, culled by EEI from many widely respected resources in the industry. These include state-sponsored task force groups, federal agencies such as FERC and NERC, research institutions such as EPRI, Power Systems Engineering, U.S. Congressional Research, and private industry analysts such as Quanta, Stephen Cieslewicz, and Sig Guggenmoos. However, the application of these recommendations should not be viewed as a rejection of the strict practice of achieving specified clearances. Let the recommendations be fully vetted and researched without injecting a bias based on the misappropriated fact that tree tips touching conductors do not cause outages or the misguided idea that mature trees along power corridors should be made to last until they are ready to collapse.

Utility and Regulatory Response to EEI Recommendations

Are regulators acting on the EEI recommendations? Are utilities adopting these recommendations? If there has been any attempt to follow the first EEI recommendation, the regulator and utility response would appear to be limited and strictly focused on major reliability targets. Instead of focusing on comprehensive tree and branch failure studies, regulators and utilities focus on reliability issues and then work backwards to cutting select trees. For example, there is a growing movement to conjoin statistical reliability formulas such as SAIDI and SAIFI to UVM decision-making. Focusing on reliability metrics erroneously positions customer density as the defining factor for root-cause analysis of tree related outages. Without including comprehensive root-cause analysis, reliability metrics are masking the full extent of tree risks. The second EEI recommendation, tree replacement programs, is also not finding its way into the regulatory mandates or consistent utility practice.

The following are a few facts and issues that characterize what regulators and the industry are focused on that relates to the EEI’s recommendations:

■ The debate over airspace around conductors. Who is right and who is wrong about the need to maintain proper clearances 24/7?

■ An unwillingness of the public to agree to a more effective and permanent solution to tree and powerline conflicts that is administered by the utility industry.

■ A lack of understanding of what variables must be collected to determine the root causes for treerelated outages.

■ Regulators are expecting measureable reliability improvements using selective metrics. They are requiring on-time cyclical schedules, while enforcing strict limits on increases in UVM resources.

■ Regulators do not understand what constitutes an effective lifecycle asset management program where trees are the asset.

■ Regulators are not requiring and utilities are not investing in robust outage investigations based on expert vegetation management knowledge.

■ Regulators are not requiring widespread tree replacement programs.

An even more concerning challenge is that there is growing evidence that the vast majority of trees being removed by many utilities are less than 12 inches dbh, despite a growing continental increase in mature tree mortality. Current company policies often prohibit the removal of larger trees unless the contractor can establish there is a clear and present danger of failure and the target powerline is subject to substantial reliability risks. This is compounded by the fact that regulators routinely wait until they witness the severe consequences of UVM decision-making before rules are crafted. The Michigan Public Service Commission, for example, directed utilities to develop off-ROW hazard tree programs in 2015. This decision came after a lengthy review of a devastating ice storm. DTE Energy reported 75% of outages during a 2013 December ice storm were caused by trees. Consumers Energy reported that 25% of tree-related outages during the same storm were caused by off-ROW ash trees (MPSC Docket U-17542, pp.13). Emerald Ash Borer was first discovered in Michigan in 2002.

Without program mandates, line inspectors and vegetation clearance crews may take the path of least resistance by removing as many small trees they can easily secure permission to remove, while continuing to prune rather than remove the large trees. This approach is also a possible response to the current reliability-centered regulatory environment, where trees are only removed to ensure the desired trends in reliability metrics. Judging by the number of companies reporting record-setting SAIDI and SAIFI, UVM programs are looking much better. Does that mean we are cutting down the right trees or enough trees? Utilities know what to do and where to go to achieve required reliability improvements, but are they improving UVM programs, reducing long-term reliability costs, and building storm resiliency?


Current UVM programs and regulatory initiatives are not systematically promoting pre-storm resiliency. Resiliency is the answer sought by those who have studied storms and fires and therefore understand there are ways to reduce risks of the inevitable catastrophe. A few states such as West Virginia, Maryland, California, Kentucky, and Connecticut have passed rules that are aimed at reducing the risk of widespread damage and at improving the response. These efforts are limited in scope and budget but recognize that doing nothing is likely to result in the same outcomes as the past.

There appears to be a nexus between the types of UVM regulations and the level of resiliency. Although it has been documented that trees growing into energized conductors do not, in many cases, cause outages, there is little evidence offered that maintaining clearances systemwide does not prevent outages. After nearly 20 years of regulations, California has not backed away from hard-fast rules regarding specified vegetation clearances mandated for powerline corridors 24/7. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is compelling evidence that strictly maintained clearances do indeed improve reliability as well as safety and fire risk reductions (Cieslewicz, Wellinghoff, and Peevey 2013). The debate over clearance-based UVM versus reliability-based UVM has prevented the commissions, utilities and their constituents throughout the US and Canada from taking tangible steps towards more effective requirements.

The EEI report reviews the recent decisions by regulatory entities with regards to system resiliency. There have been millions of dollars invested in T&D upgrades that are targeted at improving system durability and emergency operations responding to more frequent storms with more destructive impacts to the grid. Some states have allocated more funds to perform UVM, but there are few efforts that indicate a deep understanding of the specific connections between resiliency and UVM. Most UVM program allocations are based on cost variables, implementation targets and reliability metrics. For example, beyond the annual report already required from KY IOUs since 2010, the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) has required Kentucky Power to submit detailed responses to 114 probing questions. The PSC wants to know how much overtime is spent on tree related outages, how contractors are paid, detailed salary information, whether circuits are on a strict schedule, and whether incentive or penalties are issued for strict schedule adherence. It is no surprise that a utility vegetation manager must declare, “storm damage cannot be prevented.” This protest, often heard after major storms, is a hard one to fix when few UVM budgets are even sufficient enough to complete scheduled work and ensure reliability in the absence of major storms.

Although well-run programs are a cornerstone of achieving program objectives, a clear path must exist between program implementation and program objectives. Evidence thus far is that regulatory commissions do not understand this path and utilities feel they are already spending too much on something that is outside their control and core business.

Customer Service

Customers are being heard and they provide a feedback loop that deflects many efforts to improve UVM. The customers’ concerns are addressed at the expense of determining what is the most rational and scientific approach to solving powerline and vegetation-related issues. In other words, many good UVM ideas are never reviewed or tested because it is a known fact that utility customers don’t like their trees maintained or removed for electric utility purposes. The extraordinary efforts by arborists and utility regulators in Connecticut to craft a storm-resilient, healthy off-ROW forest and an on-ROW utility clear zone were met by a powerful customer resistance. This resistance effort was victorious and it reaffirmed the belief, which is backed by legal rights, that property owners know what is best when it involves their trees. Customers do not know what percent of their electric service dollars are expended for UVM. Many electric service providers don’t know what percent of their customers have trees that are regularly managed for powerline safety. UVM managers may estimate most or even all customers are served directly with UVM (CNUC 2012 and 2014 surveys), but they have not derived a listing of affected property owners to study commonalities and concerns. Property owners could be incentivized to make wise vegetation management decisions in the same way they are making electrical usage decisions.


The EEI recommendations are focused on two ideas: the cause of electric interruptions and right-tree, right-place landscapes. Although regulators have increased reliability reporting and response requirements, there is insufficient understanding of the intersection between outages and preventative vegetation maintenance. Progress in this area is in a large part limited by other issues that are external to tree powerline conflicts, such as what are appropriate customer expectations, what is acceptable reliability performance, what constitutes appropriate urban forestry management (cycles/clearances), and what might be considered resiliency to storms. There is even disagreement whether maintaining space around the conductors is effective for purposes of reliability or storm resilience. It is recommended that regulators and legislators control the liabilities and external influences that constrain the UVM industry from taking appropriate actions for millions of mature trees. It is also recommended that regulators start investing in research and innovative programs that will result in more permanent solutions.

To view the article where it was originally published, click here.

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