PSC orders utilities to submit vegetation-trimming plans
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Public Service Commission has ordered electric utilities in West Virginia to propose comprehensive vegetation trimming programs to maintain their rights of way.
Proposals are due within six months, the commission said.
"The proposals must cover all distribution and transmission lines on an 'end-to-end, time-based cycle,' based on each utility's specific operational and reliability targets," the commission said.
In addition, the proposals "must indicate how the program will be coordinated with other entities that have facilities in the rights-of-way or attached to utility poles, and that may also have an obligation to maintain the same rights-of-way."
The commission told each company to show how much their proposed plan would cost and how they would recover the cost from ratepayers.
Jeri Matheney, Appalachian Power's communications director, said, "This order is a positive step that will help Appalachian Power significantly improve reliability for our customers in West Virginia.
"Two points are especially important in the order," Matheney said. "First, we believe a cycle-based vegetation management will help us increase reliability, and the commission in its order agreed.
"Second, the order requires us to include a plan for recovering costs, and that's vital because without a method to recover the costs of tree trimming, we are limited in what we're able to accomplish.
"Based on this order, the company will propose a specific plan of action for tree trimming and vegetation management that allows us to meet our specific reliability targets."
Wednesday's order closes a general investigation the commission launched into utility responses and practices following the June 29 derecho that left an estimated 85 percent of West Virginians without electricity, many for an extended period.
Appalachian Power, which provides electricity to about half a million customers across southern West Virginia, has called the derecho the most devastating weather event in the company's history. The windstorm inflicted $62 million in damages to its facilities in West Virginia, the company has said.
FirstEnergy, which serves the northern half of the state, has said its costs were $110 million.
Appalachian Power does not currently have a "trim cycle" -- a set number of years during which it clears all of its right of ways of trees. Instead, the company tries to identify high-risk areas and areas where the company's executives believe reliability can be most significantly enhanced.
Charles Patton, Appalachian Power's president and chief operating officer, said in a November interview that he would like to establish a four-year trim cycle.
The company currently spends about $15 million annually on tree trimming. Appalachian Power has estimated a four-year cycle would cost an additional $25 million a year for about five years, with the additional cost dropping back to $17 million or $18 million a year thereafter.
The company has figured that a four-year cycle would increase the average residential customer's bill by about $1 a month for five years and would then drop to about 48 cents a month, although those figures could change depending on the price of fuel and other factors.
But even a four-year trim cycle won't help when huge storms hit, Patton has said. "The trim cycle doesn't matter when you've got trees, root balls, coming down the mountains," he said in November.
Patton pointed out that FirstEnergy is already on a four-year trim cycle. But following Superstorm Sandy, Appalachian Power restored service to its customers before First Energy did. That's because First Energy serves more remote areas at higher elevations, he said.
Contact writer George Hohmann at email@example.com or 304-348-4836.