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The Great American Blackout

The articles have generally been organized chronologically so that the reader can see the evolution of technology and knowledge. However, as Bob Bell points out in this article, the continuing prominence and frequency of tree-related electric service interruptions has more to do with executive level recognition of the role vegetation plays in overall reliability and the proportionate dedication of resources, in other words corporate will, than it does with any lack in knowledge. As Bell writes, “Do you want to make a real change? Try pulling your corridor-management departments out of the basement and up to the executive level…. Some companies get it; most don't.” If you are a utility executive, this article is recommended. Before you can decrease tree-related outages, a look in the mirror to assess your part in the current experience, is warranted. After this article, Vegetation Management Concepts and Principles is recommended reading. If you are a vegetation manager, read this article because if no

Keep a few candles and some matches in a place where you can find them. A refrigerator or freezer without power will keep its contents cold for 24 hours if left unopened. Never use charcoal indoors. These and other helpful hints can be found on your local utility's website under the heading: What to do in case of a power outage. I recommend you go to the site and print off that page. Keep it with your candles; you might need it.

The electric T&D industry was built by the minds of engineers and on the backs of linemen. Engineering and construction are core to our business. Unfortunately, many utilities are trapped and bound by their origins. We are so certain we can engineer and build a better line, a better substation, a better protection system that we fail to recognize the corridors upon which we build our infrastructure are not peripheral to our business; they are absolutely core to our business. Vegetation management, right of way and environmental programs require an intense commitment from the utility to successfully manage these corridors. Today in particular, our industry needs to find the key to effective vegetation management.

Aug. 14, 2003, the day that redefined the word “blackout,” started with a tree. Similar occurrences struck the Western grid in 1996 and Europe later in 2003. Vegetation causes millions of service interruptions to individuals and businesses every year. Trees are the No. 1 cause of electrical outage in North America and are almost always among the top five causes of outages at any given utility.

Let's get some perspective here, folks. Relative to cheetahs and hummingbirds, trees move pretty slowly. A really fast-growing tree can grow 20 ft (6 m) in one year. That works out to 0.000000043425 mph. This begs the question, what exactly is the reaction time of utility industry bureaucracy?

Look around this industry and you will see another merger, another acquisition, another re-organization, another attempt at right-sizing. Everybody is trying to invent the next paradigm shift, but there never is a paradigm shift. Do you want to make a real change? Try pulling your corridor-management departments out of the basement and up to the executive level (or at least out of the sewer and up to the street). Some companies get it; most don't. Even the utilities that get it don't really get it.

Customers in the 1990s expected quality power. Now they demand it. Today's average home office has more computing power than a university or government lab in the 1970s. The technology revolution of the 1980s and 1990s isn't new anymore. Over the past three decades, engineering and construction have risen to the challenge of sophisticated customers. But in spite of the advances, the lights grow dim on far too many occasions.

And when it comes to vegetation and dimming lights, we can't point the finger at research, technology or knowledge base. Sadly, the culprit is execution. The technology curve in arboriculture, or tree science, is remarkably similar to other disciplines, in that there are steady improvements in productivity and effectiveness, and occasional step-function leaps in technology. Tree workers cut limbs with a handsaw until the chainsaw was invented in 1926. Crews stacked brush in the backs of trucks and trailers until the chipper was invented in 1949. Before aerial-lift trucks were introduced to the tree business in 1953, all trees were climbed. Today, insulated-bucket trucks carry line-clearance tree workers quickly and safely to more than half the millions of trees that are trimmed annually to provide clearance near overhead lines.

Advances in equipment only represent a small part of the advances in the utility vegetation management industry. More than 20 years ago, a forest-service researcher in New Hampshire reinvented tree biology and taught us how to prune trees to reduce resprouting. A couple of Penn State University professors launched what has become a 51-year vegetation management research project under a transmission line in central Pennsylvania. The chemical industry invented an antihormone that actually reduces the growth of tree limbs when applied to the tree's root system. We have the knowledge. The question is: Do we have the will and desire to implement that knowledge?

The typical utility looks at corridor functions and says, “That is not the business that we are in. It is a necessary evil.” Well, maybe it is evil, but it is also the business we are in. If you agree that our business is energy delivery, then you must also accept that energy delivery rests on the proverbial three-legged stool of engineering, construction and corridor management. Failure in any of these disciplines will break the system. For the past decade, corridor management — particularly vegetation — has been breaking our backs.

A good friend and former colleague refers to the anniversary of the Northeast blackout as “Electric Appreciation Day.” The last Friday in April every year is National Arbor Day. Which one of these will you be celebrating?

Bob Bell is the immediate past-president of the Utility Arborist Association. He has extensive utility vegetation management experience working for municipal and investor-owned utilities throughout North America. He is an ISA-certified arborist and utility specialist. He has a B.S. degree in forest science from Pennsylvania State University and an MBA degree from the University of New Mexico. [email protected]

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