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Trees draw scrutiny in battle to keep the lights on

No one seemed to know who owned the unhealthy trees in the alley behind Rexmere Road in Baltimore, the ones growing amid the electrical lines, but there was no mystery about the cause of every power outage around there.

Meetings were organized. Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke tracked down people with property maps. The Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi at Clare Court, surprised to find that most of the trees were theirs, hired a contractor to trim like mad just before superstorm Sandy hit in October.

It worked. The lights stayed on.

"It was like a eureka moment, believe me," said Susann Schemm, a Rexmere Road resident who lost power for eight days after the June 29 derecho storm.

Trees and branches falling on power lines cause most bad-weather outages, including the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s territory during two big storms this year. As the amount of rough weather buffeting the region mounts, officials and residents alike are taking a harder look at the part trees play in the aggravating — and dangerous — matter of days-long stretches without power.

That's a major shift.

"A decade ago, I think most people didn't want us to trim the trees," said Brian C. Daschbach Sr., vice president of BGE's integrated field services, which includes forestry. "I'd say that today, people do want us to trim the trees."

The state convened a Grid Resiliency Task Force after the June derecho windstorm caused more than 1 million outages statewide in 100-degree heat. The group recommended this fall that utilities be allowed to charge more to make improvements relating directly and indirectly to trees.

The major suggestions: Move limited portions of overhead power lines underground — away from troublesome branches — and "embrace an accelerated tree trimming schedule."

"While the task force is cognizant of the critical and positive role that Maryland's tree canopy plays throughout the state, the task force is convinced that improved vegetation management is a highly effective way to improve the resiliency of the grid," the group said in its report.

Maryland's Public Service Commission, hoping to improve reliability, required in May that utilities trim trees along their entire system every four to five years. The task force then suggested that the first cycle be done in just two years.

But consumer advocates aren't wild about the task force report because it calls for a monthly surcharge, which Gov. Martin O'Malley — speaking generally — suggested could add $1 or $2 to bills. Utility watchdogs say the companies should pay for trimming and "selective undergrounding" from the rates they already charge consumers — rates that BGE is asking permission to increase.

"Tree trimming is always just part of maintaining your system," said Paula M. Carmody, who represents residential utility customers as head of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel. "Trees have been around forever."

BGE — which spent $34.5 million on vegetation management last year, up nearly $11 million from 2007 — likes the task force recommendations. Officials at the utility say they use the suggested trimming and infrastructure strategy in communities with reliability problems.

Tree-heavy Pikesville is one example. BGE spokesman Rob Gould calls the Baltimore County community one of the hardest hit in the region during Hurricane Irene last year and the summer derecho.

After Irene, BGE put together a Pikesville to-do list: new equipment, underground cable in forests too dense for the overhead power lines, and a lot of tree trimming and removal.

Though the planning had started months earlier, BGE officials said work was still in the early stages when the derecho roared through with less than an hour's warning. The storm knocked down so many trees and did so much damage to the local grid that some Pikesville customers were without power for up to eight days.

Afterward, BGE kept working. The undergrounding and much of the new equipment will come next year, but the utility removed at least 70 trees in the most walloped part of Pikesville — on top of ones felled by the derecho — and trimmed many more.

When Sandy blew through in late October, tree damage to the community's lines was so much less severe that most residents had their power back by the next evening, according to BGE.

Power outages are such a problem for the area that the Pikesville-Greenspring Community Coalition has a committee focused on nothing but the issue. Noel Levy, the committee's chairman, said "hardly a week goes by in Pikesville, hardly a week, when somebody isn't losing power somewhere."

He suggested that decades-old equipment in dire need of replacement is more to blame than trees.

Barry Holt Blank, first vice president of the coalition, agreed. But he acknowledged that the tree work, while not a panacea, has made a difference.

"We let BGE know that we recognize that they've spent a ton in our neighborhood and things are better than they were," Blank said.

The dominant emotion about tree-trimming and removal in the Baltimore area used to be dissatisfaction, changing as it did the look of yards, streets or entire neighborhoods. Residents occasionally sought temporary restraining orders to try to protect trees on their property. Carroll County's commissioners, after fielding complaints, asked BGE in 2005 to halt work along Route 140.

Then one storm after another hit Maryland. The twin snowstorms in 2010. A January snowstorm and Hurricane Irene in 2011. The derecho and Sandy this year.

That change has brought more and louder customer complaints about reliability. It has also caused what Gould called a 180-degree turn in customer opinion on tree maintenance.

Now some homeowners are asking BGE to take down their trees, he said. In cases where property owners aren't so thrilled, community leaders have suggested to him that a little neighborly peer pressure might be applied. (When trees pose a hazard to lines but aren't growing into the utility right of way, BGE's hands are more or less tied if it can't get the owner's OK.)

And then there are the customers — like the nuns in Baltimore — who take the expense of tree trimming and removal upon themselves.

"I regret that it had to come because the lights go out so often in storms, but I'm grateful that the shift has happened, because it allows us to accomplish our mission more effectively," BGE's Daschbach said.

But for tree lovers, the change is unwelcome.

Nina Beth Cardin, a rabbi who directs the Baltimore Orchard Project, said trees are so critically important to the environment that two at a minimum ought to be planted for every one cut down. The goal should be to put wires underground, which would also cut down on visual blight, she said.

Cardin lives in Pikesville, where BGE has been cutting and trimming assiduously. She lost seven massive white pines and one locust tree in her front yard this summer. She also lost power for a week after Irene and eight days post-derecho. Her point isn't that trees are more important than energy, but that it's wrongheaded to pit the two against each other.

"It should not be either power or trees," said Cardin. "We've set up an unhealthy competition."

An overhead system is more prone to outages than one underground. About 80 percent of BGE's underground distribution lines functioned through each of the past three major storms, compared with just over half its overhead lines, according to the grid task force.

For distribution lines that are partly above and partly below, storm performance fell between the two extremes — a reminder that customers with underground lines can fall victim to tree-related outages, too.

And while proponents say the long-term savings would be substantial, large-scale "undergrounding" could come with a huge upfront tab.

The state's grid task force, citing a utility trade group, said such conversions "can cost five to ten times more than comparable overhead construction." It recommended undergrounding in select cases but suggested that aggressive tree-trimming was the most effective move.

The bottom line, as the task force saw it, is "if the branches don't fall, the lines don't break."

Daschbach said he wants people to know that the utility takes power reliability and the importance of trees seriously. There's an innate tension: It's the towering specimens that pose a problem for lines, he said, but "those mature trees are the ones that are pretty majestic."

His staff, hoping to reduce future conflicts, is talking to local governments, developers, nurseries and individual customers about what can safely be planted near power lines. Fruit trees and "profoundly" flowering trees such as the dogwood are good because they don't typically grow to problematic heights. Bad: silver maples, white pines and other fast growers with weak wood.

Many huge trees in the no-no category can be found in Pikesville. Planted decades ago, they've since "overtaken the system," Gould said.

Trimming can't prevent all power outages during a hurricane, but BGE sees it as a way to reduce their number and length.

So, too, do the property owners who have elected to trim or remove their own trees in hopes of improving electric reliability.

Sister Ellen Carr, administrative director for the Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi at Clare Court in Baltimore, said the "volunteer" trees that sprung up years ago outside the nuns' fence — but, unbeknown to the order, on its property — have such shallow roots that they're quite precarious. Tree experts said 19 needed to come down. Others required trimming.

The discovery didn't come without pangs.

"We are Franciscan, and Franciscans are very, very concerned about nature," Carr said.

Tree removal isn't cheap, either, and the sisters wouldn't even have the satisfaction of improving their own electric reliability — Clare Court doesn't rely on the power lines near those trees. But Carr said she couldn't stand by while her neighbors were "so incredibly vulnerable."

"Obviously, it was our responsibility, and once we realized it was our responsibility, we had to take action," she said.

Clarke, the councilwoman who represents the area, said Rexmere Road always seemed to lose power in storms. The derecho knocked out desperately needed air conditioning during a heat wave.

She's delighted the tree-cutting worked.

"It made all the difference," Clarke said.

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