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After Hurricane Irma, Fla. utilities want more authority to trim disputed trees

SNL Image

Linemen work to restore a distribution pole affected by a fallen tree in Coral Gables, Fla., in a Sept. 15, 2017, photo.
Source: Florida Power & Light

Disputed vegetation that downs power lines and distribution poles represents the biggest obstacle to faster restorations after Hurricane Irma, Florida's investor-owned utilities say.

While the Sunshine State's distribution systems largely held up during the September 2017 storm, which caused 6.7 million outages, utility officials are now urging regulators to help their companies gain permission to trim trees outside their jurisdictions, known as rights-of-way.

But that authorization might not come before the start of the 2018 hurricane season. The Florida Legislature is out of session, and some local governments are resisting utilities' efforts to clear areas around electric infrastructure before and after storms.

If a power company has properly managed vegetation in its rights-of-way but a tree outside those zones falls onto its infrastructure, "there's not much" a utility can do, Tom Ballinger, director of the state Public Service Commission's engineering division, said at a regulatory workshop held May 2-3. The sessions aimed to identify which segments of power infrastructure performed well and where the system failed during the 2017 hurricane season that ravaged vast swaths of the U.S. Gulf Coast.

For Florida utilities, the focus remains strongly on transmission and distribution infrastructure. Though the companies are also investing to protect generation assets with solutions like flood monitoring systems, the ensuing friction between the needs of utilities and the rights of municipalities and private property owners dominated the recent PSC meetings.

Bryan Olnick, Florida Power & Light Co.'s vice president of distribution operations, agreed with Ballinger. The utility and its peers are not allowed to venture beyond their rights-of-way for vegetation management. Additionally, no statewide law requires municipalities and citizens to plant in optimal spots — a practice the utilities call "right tree, right place" — to prevent interference with distribution systems during storms.

Other examples of vegetation-induced disruption include underground circuits ripped to the surface by tree roots, and distribution poles felled by wet soil or drooping flora. Downed trees can also obstruct roadways, further delaying utility crews.

While Olnick credited some counties and cities for setting more stringent regulations dictating which plant species can be planted where, other entities have their own management plans and are "planting trees right back under our lines as we speak," he said.

"There's a balance to be struck between legitimate aesthetic concerns and our obligation to clear the lines," said Jason Cutliffe, Duke Energy Florida LLC's director of power, quality and reliability. Seven of every 10 Duke distribution poles broken during Irma were due to vegetation impacts, he added, with "most" happening when trees outside rights-of-way fell into utility territory.

FPL has spent nearly $3 billion on its grid over the last 11 years, according to the utility. Duke Energy Florida said since 2004 it has invested more than $2 billion strengthening its system. Tampa Electric Co. over the past decade has spent $479 million on hardening.

SNL Image

A broken distribution pole and transformer in Cocoa Beach, Fla., in a Sept. 14, 2017 photo.
Source: Florida Power & Light

'Sticky relationship issues'

Florida's biggest utilities are at various stages of undergrounding their distribution lines to mitigate vegetation damage, officials told regulators.

"A little over" 40% of FPL's system is underground, Olnick said, with Cutliffe reporting Duke at 43%. Regan Haines, Tampa Electric's director of transmission and system operations, said "roughly" 40% of that company's wires are below the surface. Cutliffe added that the "vast majority" of greenfield distribution construction is by default going underground.

In July, FPL will kick off a three-year pilot program to bury some of its overhead laterals. "This could eliminate potentially a lot of issues that you may see with vegetation issues and rear-of easements in the future," Olnick said. "There's one way you can do it, but you're still always going to be back trimming that tree. So we're trying to figure out a way to engineer this out once and for all."

While PSC members were sympathetic to the utilities, some raised questions on the costs of these measures, and whether anything can be ultimately done about what Commissioner Donald Polmann described as "sticky relationship issues" with municipalities.

State lawmakers have expressed desire to resolve this tension. A select Florida House committee was created after Irma to review hurricane preparedness and response at all levels, including power companies. That panel issued dozens of recommendations, one of which was the possible repeal of local governments' exceptions to statewide standards for vegetation management within rights-of-way. The legislature adjourned without codifying this into law.

The PSC is also expected to soon produce a report with recommendations on how utilities can do better for the coming hurricane season, which starts June 1.

Standardized schedules pondered

Tree-trimming costs have been included in utilities' base rates since the mid-2000s. But the PSC's consumer advocate, the Office of Public Counsel, has called for those expenses to instead be appraised during annual storm-hardening review sessions.

Jon Moyle, an attorney for the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, suggested the PSC implement standardized vegetation management cycle lengths across all utilities, which he argued would make tree-trimming costs less variable during cost recovery review. Companies currently create and execute their own schedules.

"If I'm a utility, and I have a wide degree of variability with respect to expenditures, there are a lot of things that I have to look at," Moyle said. "I want to try to make an earnings number, and if I can say I can defer tree-trimming for this year, that'll help me with my earnings — not unlike owning a piece of property, you defer maintenance and you have a better result."

PSC Commissioner Gary Clark pushed back against this idea, saying that utilities factor in individual circumstances like weather, topography and vegetation types when formulating cycles. Sometimes droughts obviate the need to trim at all, he added. Clark was open, however, to companies coming to the PSC to specifically defend their vegetation management costs.

FPL is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Inc., Duke Energy Florida is a subsidiary of Duke Energy Corp. and Tampa Electric is a subsidiary of Emera Inc.