Regulating Utility Vegetation Management Activities

Regulating Utility Vegetation Management Activities


By Stephen R. Cieslewicz, CN Utility Consulting

This opinion editorial was published in the May/June 2012 issue of Utility Arborist Newsline.

I begin this article knowing full well it may bring to the surface some interesting, albeit potentially controversial issues. My hope is that these issues are discussed extensively among the many members of the UVM industry so that we may shape our industry together, for the better.

At the time of this writing, my company is embarking upon a study to explore the effectiveness of regulating UVM activities. Our intent is to take a critical look at the following questions:

  • What types of UVM regulations currently exist?
  • Do they work?
  • What are the likely trends of UVM regulations in the future?
  • What are the current UVM industry opinions regarding regulations?

With the evident caveat that we may need to address some different issues between now and when we finish our study, I offer the following though provoking questions and commentary based on CN Utility Consulting’s research results thus far as well as our prediction of the trend toward more UVM regulations in the future.

First we must ask what types of UVM regulations currently exist. Based on a state by state review of UVM regulations, the following are the dominant mandates/approaches used by regulators to compel UVM work for transmissions and distribution electric systems:

  • Compliance with NESC 218
  • Mandatory cycles: Utility is required to complete full UVM cycles during a specific time period
  • Mandatory clearances: Utility is required to maintain specific clearances between vegetation and energized lines
  • Programmatic reviews: Utility is subject to regulatory scrutiny of UVM program activities and components
  • Mandatory spending: Utility cannot utilize UVM budgets for other purposes
  • Performance improvements: Utility must improve reliability efforts and results
  • Incentives and penalties for meeting or not meeting regulatory expectations

Of course, most utilities are dealing with a combination of more than one of the above mandates/approaches. Whether individual or in combination, we must ask if these regulations work. It depends on who you ask, what metrics you are using, and why you are doing UVM. To the latter point, at present there is no industry wide consensus on the actual purpose of UVM. While intuitively we would think it is primarily focused on preventing outages, many utilities place much more of an emphasis on fire prevention, public safety, and/or compliance with the law. And, as can be imagined, each purpose and approach results in significantly different UVM programs and measures of success.

If we assume however, that the best measure of UVM regulatory efficacy is though demonstrating that the intended results of a regulation are achieved, we have no better example of effectiveness that we can point to than that of FAC-003. The “intent” of this North American transmission regulation was to reduce or eliminate the chances of a repeat of the 2003 Northeast Blackout in which unmanaged tree growth contributed to the largest blackout in our history. FAC-003 was fully promulgated in 2007.

Another valid example of the efficacy of mandatory clearance requirements comes from a utility that has had to comply with mandatory clearance requirements for well over a decade. The chart below illustrates the effect of mandatory clearance requirements on PG&E’s tree related SAIFI.

According to PG&E’s Manager of Operations Steve Tankersely, “PG&E’s SAIFI improvement from 1997 to 2007 can be directly related to California reulation mandating minimum clearance requirements. Our SAIFI improvement beyond 2007, which is still driven by the mandatory clearance requirements, has further been augmented by additional tree species specific targeted work.”

While the preceding examples were used to illustrate a correlation between regulations and efficacy, our research indicates that many more tangible connections exist that clearly demonstrate that mandatory clearances do indeed work.

CN Utility Consulting has been tracking UVM regulatory trends for the last decade, and we are convinced that we will see more, not fewer UVM regulation and requirements being promulgated at a state level, by public utility commissions. There have already been changes in UVM regulatory activity in New York, Indiana, and California. More recently, events have triggered UVM regulatory proceedings in Connecticut, New York, Texas, and Maryland, to name a few. The ongoing debates are centered around what the best way is to regulate UVM activities, and they will result in new regulations. As such, these proceedings should be monitored by utilities and UVM vendors who work in these states.

Based on discussions with utility companies, this change in attitude seems to be driven by the realization that mandatory clearance requirements typically equate to appropriate funding. We know for example that utilities across North America increased spendign on transmissions work immediately following adoption of FAC-003. We also know that utilities in California increased (and have since consistently maintained) UVM funding levels in consort with the adoption of Rule 35. And to be clear, the industry does currently have a very large problem related to inadequate funding of UVM efforts.

By now it should be clear that CN Utility Consulting’s initial foray into the issue of UVM regulatory efficacy is leading us in the direction of mandatory clearance requirements holding the most promise for addressing some of the industry’s current obstacles and objectives. While a brief articles such as this may only touch on a few of the countless issues associated with this preliminary conclusion, our final conclusions will, at minimum, address each of the following questions in detail:

  • If trees outside of normal clearance limits cause the majority of tree related outages, how can mandatory clearances improve reliability?
  • Why don’t mandatory cycles and other types of UVM regulations work as well as mandatory clearances?
  • How can we reconcile different objectives (prevent outages, prevent fires, and prevent threats to the public)?
  • Are regulations worth the money and headaches?
  • How can, or should, a new UVM regulation address the right to perform UVM?
  • How can, or should, a new regulatory requirement fix current and anticipated problems of erroneous liability on the part of a utility company?

CN Utility Consulting hopes to share our final conclusions with folks in the industry for appropriate vetting and debate. But even before that happens, we think these issues should be a topic of discussion, and we welcome any comments or suggestions.

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