PSC approves post-derecho tree-trimming plan

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Public Service Commission on Tuesday approved a plan that would more than quadruple the amount Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power spend each year to trim trees near power lines.The plans, drawn up in response to power outages caused by the December 2009 blizzard and the derecho and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, will increase rates for consumers over the next few years.But ratepayers likely won't see an increase in their bills until later this year.The storms each left vast swaths of the state without power for several days. Utility companies also racked up hefty bills to deal with the damages, which were mostly caused when trees toppled power lines. The June 2012 derecho alone cost Appalachian Power and FirstEnergy $172 million in repairs.In response to the storms, the commission in early 2013 ordered state power utilities to draw up comprehensive plans to clear trees and other vegetation from along their power line rights-of-way.Appalachian and Wheeling Power, both subsidiaries of Ohio-based American Electric Power, currently spend about $14 million a year on tree-trimming programs.Power company representatives said the increased right-of-way maintenance program, which will be carried out over the next six years, will cost $58 million on an annual basis - $44 million more than what is currently factored into  rates.The companies had asked to tack on a surcharge to customer bills to pay for the extra cost of the programs. But PSC staff attorneys and Consumer Advocate Division representatives said the program should be viewed as a standard maintenance cost, which is already factored in to the power companies' base rates.The PSC ruled it will deal with the higher costs of the program when the power companies file their next base rate case, which should be filed before June 30.
While acknowledging the costs of the program, commissioners ruled it was a prudent investment to improve the power grid's reliability."It is in the public interest to institute an aggressive, periodic, end-to-end vegetation management program," commissioners wrote in their decision. "The enhanced (program) will cost money, but doing nothing, in our opinion, costs even more."In its decision, the commission characterized the storms as "rare freaks of nature or isolated acts of God.""Nothing can stop these mega-storms or prevent all related service interruptions," the commission said. "That does not mean, however, that the Commission and the utilities should not take steps to attempt to dampen or ameliorate the impact of these mega-storms."Power company officials said they would work to implement the improved tree-trimming plan as quickly as practical."Reliable service is important to our customers, and it's up to us to balance the need to keep prices as low as possible with the need to keep the lights on," said Appalachian Power president Charles Patton. "While we can't protect customers against outages in major events like the derecho and Sandy, cycle trimming will result in more reliable electric service overall."
The commission has already approved vegetation management plans for four smaller electric utility companies operating in the state. It is still reviewing the proposal submitted by FirstEnergy subsidiaries Mon Power and Potomac Edison.Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power serve more than 478,000 customers in West Virginia.Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-4836. 
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