As the state prepares for the 2018 hurricane season, utility regulators might look at who dictates tree trimming.
Fallen trees and uncollected debris stacked along roads were among the biggest impediments — along with traffic, wind and flooding — to power restoration following Hurricane Irma, according to officials from Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric, Gulf Power and the Florida Municipal Electric Association on Wednesday.
The officials attended the opening of a two-day workshop held by the state Public Service Commission on storm preparedness and restoration.
Several billion dollars have been spent to harden the various power systems from Key West to Pensacola over the past decade, which helped lessen the amount of time most Floridians were without power after Hurricane Irma plowed across the state in September, the officials said.
“There is no way that we can prevent all power outages, but we do want to make sure that we make the investments so we can minimize those outages for customers and certainly so that whenever the power goes out that we’re there to get the power back on as soon as possible,” Duke Energy Florida spokeswoman Valerie Patterson said.
And with the June 1 start of the six-month hurricane season now less than a month away, more work is needed, particularly in trimming and clearing trees and vegetation away from power lines to further decrease the potential impacts of storms.
“Our forensics tells us that 70 percent of the poles that broke were due to a direct impact from a tree, and most of those were from outside the right-of-way,” said Jason Cutliffe, Duke Energy Florida director of power quality and reliability.
However, many of the trees that may threaten power lines or poles are protected by county and municipal tree ordinances.
Public Service Commission member Gary Clark, acknowledging that staff members “may cringe,” said he hopes the commission will take a position or advocate so that trimming in rights of way can’t be blocked by local ordinances.
“One of the biggest problems we have is in your willingness to cooperate and try to get along and work with the consumers as opposed to saying, ‘No, this is for the benefit of everybody that is on the line, we’re going to clear this,’ ” Clark told the utility officials.
Such a stance could set off another fight similar to a failed move during this year’s legislative session to pre-empt local trimming rules.
The House approved a proposal (HB 521) focused on trees and brush in flood and drainage control rights of way. Meanwhile, Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican now running for Congress, was unable to advance a measure (SB 574) that sought to impose statewide rules for tree management. Steube was also unable to move a scaled-back version of the bill.
Clark asked if the state could extend right-of-way requirements, similar to what is in place for large feeder lines, as a way to solve some of the vegetation issues.
Meanwhile, commission member Donald Polmann, who said his home community in Dunedin has underground power lines, gave an example of the reluctance homeowners have about mandated tree trimming.
“The county is not shy about clearing trees on behalf of the fire department,” Polmann said. “I came home one day and looked on my street, which has a very nice canopy and thought, “What in the world happened?’ They had cut more trees than you could imagine.”
Cutliffe said there is a need to educate local governments in “striking the right balance in tree trimming.”
“We have vegetation management specialists that work with city arborists and directors of utilities, there is a balance to be struck between legitimate aesthetic concerns and our obligation to clear the lines,” Cutliffe said.
Commission member Julie Brown suggested expanding the “Right Tree, Right Place,” program, which encourages homeowners and builders to consider the location for any plantings and the eventual sizes of plants.
Bryan Olnick, FPL vice president of distribution operations, said utility officials are working with a number of local governments to enact landscaping rules based on the program.
“They do see the result of having lines cleared of vegetation during a major hurricane event and how much quicker their community gets restored,” Olnick said.
Besides trimming, utility officials talked of improvements they are making to social-media links after learning from Irma. That includes being ready to provide instant information about issues such as evacuations and when electricity is restored to homes.
Florida Power & Light is also starting an underground power-line pilot program. While such lines take longer to restore when damaged, the company found in Irma that underground lines sustained fewer outages than regular overhead lines.
“Undergrounding is not a panacea, but we did find that during Irma there were benefits. So we’re looking at different ways to increase the amount of undergrounding that we do,” FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski said.
Cutliffe said Duke is also looking into expanding its use of underground lines.