Above: a mature tree that has grown very near and around a BWL transformer along an East Lansing street
At the center of BWL’s lawsuit against an East Lansing homeowner is the question of how BWL should be allowed to trim trees. BWL has brought this lawsuit in part to effectively seek a court sanctioning of the “ground to sky” cutting the company wants to conduct all around East Lansing near its power lines. BWL has met resistance from some East Lansing homeowners, including those who have deployed yard signs, produced and paid for by the homeowner BWL has elected to sue, telling BWL not to come on properties without evidence of an easement right to trim.
Standing under the silver maple tree in legal dispute last week, the homeowner being sued told the presiding judge in the case that he’s for trimming trees near lines, but against the BWL’s forester’s plan for this tree. The homeowner’s arborist has said on the record that BWL’s “ground to sky” cutting approach for distribution lines regardless of tree species is not the same as that used by Consumers Energy and other utilities.
For this report, I set to find out: Where do BWL’s standards come from? Where do Consumers Energy’s come from? How do they differ?
First, some background on each company:
Consumers Energy, which supplies electrical power (and also natural gas service) to parts of East Lansing, is a major utility in Michigan, serving a large swath of the Lower Peninsula. It is regulated by the Michigan Public Services Commission. For many years, it has had an active vegetation management program.
The Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL) is owned by the City of Lansing and as such is not regulated by the Michigan Public Services Commission. (Lansing earns a substantial portion of its City budget from what BWL consumers pay in their utility bills.) After the ice storm of late 2013, which resulted in a prolonged outage for many customers, BWL was criticized in two independent reviews for failure to have an active vegetation management program. It has, as a consequence, been trying to catch up with many years of what was found to be inadequate trimming.
There are four major differences between the BWL and Consumers Energy approaches to vegetation management around distribution lines:
- Below distribution lines: BWL seeks to cut “ground to sky.” Consumers Energy allows trees growing under distribution lines if the vegetation is unlikely to threaten the wires. It seeks a minimum of 10 feet distance between the top of vegetation and the distribution lines.
- Around distribution lines: BWL has sought to cut away vegetation three feet to either side. Consumers Energy cuts away a minimum of ten feet to either side.
- Above distribution lines: Again, BWL seeks to cut “ground to sky,” allowing no overhang. Consumers Energy often allows overhang if it is at least ten feet above the distribution lines and involves a species that is unlikely to cause trouble to the distribution lines.
- Species consideration: BWL has tended to use and advocate an approach that treats trees equally, regardless of species type. Consumers Energy’s foresters have different approaches for different species.
To learn more about Consumers Energy’s approach, I spoke with Terry DeDoes, Senior Public Information Director for the company. He told me that “our professional foresters have a lot of factors they take into account for each situation.” DeDoes added, “Our priority is reliable electrical service, but we do want to balance that as well with the needs of attractive communities. We know trees play a large part in the aesthetics of a community, so we want to be sensitive to that as we do our job to protect the reliability of the electric system.”
Consumers Energy allows overhang for some species, but will cut away overhang for troublesome species. As examples of problem species, DeDoes named poplars, which tend to have large branches break off, and white pines, which have a problem of having snow accumulate on their branches such that they droop onto power lines.
DeDoes confirmed, “There are also some circumstances where we do allow branches to overhang the lines.”
Asked where Consumers Energy’s standards come from, DeDoes told me theirs “seems to be a long-standing best practice across the country with utilities.” When I researched the standards of other major electrical utilities, Consumers Energy’s was consistent with others’, using a ten-foot standard around distribution lines, with larger clearance for high voltage lines.
Consumer Energy’s standards are very similar, for example, to those used by Duke Energy, the country’s largest provider of electrical service. Duke Energy also allows overhanging branches, although they use a “minimum 15-foot height clearance” as opposed to ten. Like Consumers Energy, Duke requires that “all dead and structurally weak overhanging branches” be removed.”
DeDoes wanted to make clear in our interview that Consumers Energy wants people to “choose the right tree to plant in the right place.” The website provides advice about this, and the company offers grants to communities to encourage the planting of “appropriate trees for streetscaping projects” along public right-of-ways where Consumers Energy’s lines run.
To find out more about BWL’s standards, last week I contacted Steve Serkaian, Executive Director of Public Affairs for BWL. I asked him, “Can you explain why BWL is opting to cut within 3 feet on either side of the lines as opposed to, say, 10 or 20 feet, which might protect the lines more? (Do you have data on this standard being the right one you could share, or standards you can show me that you’ve used as the template for yours?)”
I also asked Serkaian, “Can you explain why BWL says it must cut all the way from wire to sky, whereas some other companies (like Consumers) allows high overhang over some wires? (Again, do you have data you could share on this standard being the right one, or standards you can show me that you’ve used as the template for yours?)”
Serkaian answered my message but declined to answer these questions.
In court, BWL’s attorney has said the independent review of BWL following the ice storm called for the type of cutting BWL conducts. While the reviews do call for a more consistent and extensive vegetation management program, neither review specified what standards BWL should use.
BWL’s trimming map shows that East Lansing is one of the few areas where BWL has not already done extensive cutting. Serkaian indicated in his response to me that this has left East Lansing highly vulnerable to storms like the one we experienced on July 8.
According to Serkaian, “East Lansing is served by 18 BWL circuits. Of the 18 circuits, 14 circuits tripped off during the July 8th storm leaving 100 percent of customers on those circuits without power. BWL has not trimmed trees in E. Lansing since the 2013 ice storm (and before) due to a small group of residence [sic] who oppose tree trimming.”
He added that, “A review of other BWL circuits hard hit by the storm in areas that were trimmed with BWL’s new standards since the 2013 ice storm had customer outages of only 10%.”
Serkaian concluded, “It’s demonstrably clear that an effective tree trimming program prevents outages, and more importantly, downed power lines which place the health and safety of BWL workers and residents at risk.”
In an editorial last week, the Lansing State Journal agreed with BWL, calling on East Lansing homeowners to stop fighting BWL over trimming.
Disclosure: ELi is supported by individual donors, and our donors include Richard and Conni Crittenden, the homeowners being sued by BWL. Traditional local media, including the Lansing State Journal and WILX (which have reported on this lawsuit), are supported primarily by advertising dollars, which includes money from BWL in the case of the LSJ, and Consumers Energy in the case of WILX. This reporter volunteers (is never paid for) all of her service to ELi.
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