One year later: Trimming down after the derecho

A contractor removes branches before cutting down a tree in sections. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)
A tree in Montgomery County has been marked with blue paint to signal to contractors that it needs to be removed. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)
A contractor removes branches before cutting down a tree in sections. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)
A contractor trims branches from a tree. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)
Tree branches hang above substation supply lines in Montgomery County. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

ROCKVILLE, Md. – One year after the derecho, are the lights any more likely to stay on in a storm?

Close to a million customers in the D.C. area lost power in the freak weather event last June and many went without electricity for days.

Both customers and lawmakers let the power companies have it. Now, those utilities are anxious to show some progress.

One of the biggest and most visible changes has been with tree clearance. Most outages during a storm come from trees that are near power lines or hanging above them.

“If you remove the threat, you automatically improve reliability,” says Pat Byrne, Pepco’s manager of vegetation management. “I think you can see that based on the storms that have happened in the last year how quickly the utility has restored power.”

After new regulations were approved last year, decisions about what gets trimmed or cut down have changed dramatically. The former rules for utilities required clearance based on a tree’s years of growth. The new ones also require a specific footage of clearance based on voltage.

No limbs can hang over substation supply lines, which can serve as many as 1,500 customers. The so-called blue sky clearance means lots of trees now have to be removed.

“It’s difficult explaining to customers that we have to remove more trees and limbs,” Byrne says. “But the end result is a vastly improved and reliable system, and when a major storm does happen, the intent is that we can get the restoration done much quicker.”

Utilities generally operate on a four-year trimming cycle, so full compliance with the more exhaustive clearance rules is still a few years away.


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