Connecticut utility regulators have concluded that state residents largely are satisfied with the way the state’s two dominant electric utilities, The United Illuminating Co. and Eversource Energy, manage their tree-trimming efforts in order to ensure they can keep their customers’ power on.
But comments from utility customers who responded to questions from Hearst Connecticut Media, as well as testimony from residents provided to regulators, suggest that conclusion may be only a partial picture.
The claim of of resident satisfaction was one of the conclusions reached in a biennial report that the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority is about finish. The report to the General Assembly is required by state law and PURA will issue its final report Monday in which it was to offer its assessment of the utilities’ vegetation management efforts.
“We are an electric society and have let the trees take over,” Ariane Schwartz Racow, a Cheshire resident, said in response to a question raised on Facebook. “Now everything is overgrown. Trees like people, animals, other plants all have a life expectancy; they do not live forever.”
PURA commissioners based their conclusion that people largely are satisfied with the utilities’ tree-trimming practices on a variety of factors. A draft version of the vegetation management report was issued on July 22.
“During this proceeding, there were very few public complaints made to the Authority (about the vegetation management programs),” the agency’s draft decision said in part. “No evidence was presented in the proceeding to show that the actual ... work was not needed, that it damaged any trees. Because of the lack of formal complaints, the Authority concludes that the large majority of municipalities and ... customers are satisfied with the programs where work has been performed.”
PURA officials also concluded that because 93 percent of Eversource Energy customers and 88 percent of UI customers gave the respective utility approval to trim trees on their property that were deemed to be a potential threat to distribution lines, “these programs appear to be meeting the needs of customers on a balanced approach related to reliability of service and environmental benefits of trees.”
Hamden resident Ralph Jones questioned whether the two utilities “were significantly under-reporting property owners’ experiences.”
In addition, PURA officials received email from nearly two-dozen people, many of them from Hamden and Fairfield, specifically objecting to the way UI implements its tree-trimming efforts.
“UI needs to be encouraged forcefully to approach residents and property owners in a more open manner, seeking the shared benefit of reliability and neighborhood beautification,” Jones told PURA officials in an email. “ None of us want to live on streets where we see nothing but poles and wires.”
Eric Hemmerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, is critical of a new strategy that UI wants to use more widely as part of its tree-trimming efforts.
Five years ago, according to Hemmerling, UI and Eversource were give the authority to circumvent the public notice and municipal consultation requirements in the event of emergency situations.
“But now it appears that UI is now proposing to use this ‘emergency measure’ as the basis for much of its planned work in its service territory,” Hemmerling told PURA commissioners in a letter objecting to the agency’s draft decision. “In my opinion, it is improper for an emergency measure to be used in this unintended fashion.”
The practical effect of allowing UI to do this, he said, will be that the utility will have the ability to manage the trees that are close to electric distribution lines without notifying or consulting with abutting landowners and municipal tree wardens.
A statement issued Friday by a company spokesman said “United Illuminating goes to great lengths to ensure compliance with state laws and regulations regarding vegetation management.”
“UI works with both town officials and abutting property owners before tree work is performed,” the statement said in part. “However, due to the extensive growth of vegetation and the risk of trees in direct contact with the electric lines, there are times when UI must implement our targeted risk management program. The implementation of this program occurs only in instances when there is actual contact or signs of burning between the electric lines and vegetation; even then, UI ensures that property owners are made aware of the work prior to it taking place.”
Written complaints made by individuals who live in UI’s service territory tell a different story.
“I have many concerns related to UI’s tree work in Hamden,” said Melinda Tuhus, who lives on Carmalt Road. “My own neighborhood has been decimated by their agressive tree cutting.”
Joseph File, a resident of Fairfield, told PURA that in past cases where UI has done emergency tree trimming without the oversight of the town’s tree warden, the result has been cutting down “too many trees that could have merely been pruned.”
“And in cases where it was pruned, it was sometimes pruned more than was needed,” File wrote.
While comments in the PURA docket focused largely on UI, Eversource’s tree-trimming efforts came under criticism from ratepayers on social media.
Kerry Marsh Wichowski is a former Hamden resident now living in Cheshire. She praised UI’s efforts at improving the reliability of the utility’s distribution network in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
“We lost power for about two days after Hurricane Irene,” Wichowski said. After that, “UI went around shoring up problem spots and cutting back trees throughout its service area. As a result of their attention and proactive work, we didn't lose power after (Superstorm)Sandy; not even so much as a brownout.”
Now that she lives in Cheshire, Wichowski said, and is an Eversource customer, “we lose power if the wind blows the wrong way, and our lines are underground.”
“Why they keep being allowed rate increases when they fail to provide consistent service is beyond me,” she said.
Eversource is spending $82.8 million this year on tree-trimming, according to Alan Carey, the company’s manager of vegetation management. The utility will cut down about 19,000 dead or dying trees this year in the 149 communities in its service territory.
UI’s service territory is considerably smaller than that of Eversource and, as a result, so is its tree-trimming budget. The Orange-based utility, which has electricity customers in 17 towns in the Bridgeport and New Haven areas, will spend $14 million annually on tree trimming between now and 2025, according to a company spokesman
Both utilities are allowed to pass along tree-trimming costs to ratepayers if they can prove to PURA the expenses are justified.
“In my travels around the state, I’ve seen the high tree mortality rate firsthand,” Carey said. “There are tens of thousands of dying or dead trees from the western side of the state to the eastern border that are weak and pose a real threat to the electric system.”
There are a combination of factors that are responsible for higher than normal number of dead and dying trees, he said.
In western Connecticut, it is the result of the arrival of the emerald ash borer in Connecticut seven years ago. The small, green beetle feeds on critical parts of ash trees, weakening them.
Carey said gypsy moths and drought are the key factors in killing off trees in eastern Connecticut.
Thomas Worthley, an associate professor of forestry with the University of Connecticut’s Extension program, described the number of dead trees that are still standing as “slow moving environmental disaster.”
“The number of dead trees that have the potential to affect roadways and power lines is beyond the current capacity of property owners and many town budgets to address,” Worthley said in a statement.
Carey said Eversource has been in partnership with the University of Connecticut to assess how to make the company’s electric distribution network better able to withstand the impact of violent storms and look for ways to prevent outages from happening in the first place.
One of the things the company’s Stormwise program is looking at is whether removing trees located near power lines makes remaining trees more vulnerable to be blown over, and how best to address that problem
“When you start removing trees at the edge of a forest, it makes it easier for the wind to get under the canopy and really shake the remaining ones,” Carey said.
By placing devices on trees to measure the shaking, Everource officials and UConn researchers are able to measure what the impact is on trees, he said.
“We’re looking at how we manipulate these tress so they are less susceptible (to falling over),” Carey said.