Opponents Say Bills Giving R.I. Energy Power to Trim Trees an ‘Overreach’
June 12, 2023
PROVIDENCE — Is it better to seek forgiveness or permission? According to a pair of identical bills being considered in both chambers of the General Assembly, it’s forgiveness, and municipalities are calling it a “power-grab.”
The two bills in dispute, H5656 and S0466, would give Rhode Island Energy greater powers to trim or remove trees on and around electrical infrastructure as it sees fit, regardless whether they are on private or public land.
Currently, the utility company is required to receive permission from a town tree warden — if the tree or vegetation is on public land — or the private property owner before engaging in any vegetation management activities. The proposed law replaces that procedure with a 30-day notification process, and exempts Rhode Island Energy for any other permits it might require for vegetation management, effectively giving the utility company the powers of a statewide tree warden.
Under the legislation, Rhode Island Energy would have to submit a vegetation management plan every four years — currently it’s required to do it annually as part of the Electric Infrastructure, Reliability and Safety Plan — to be approved by the state Public Utilities Commission.
The bill would also create a “Right Tree, Right Time” program for the utility to educate residents on the types of vegetation that should be planted near power lines. Both bills have received letters of support from the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, and the Newport Chamber of Commerce.
Rhode Island Energy director of government affairs, Nick Ucci, told lawmakers last month that vegetation-related damage was the chief cause of power outages in the state and that the bills would provide a transparent and holistic approach to protecting electric grid reliability as climate change brings more intense storms, and more frequent pests and fungi that will fell trees near power lines.
“We don’t go around with the goal of taking down trees, that doesn’t help anyone, that’s not what we’re about,” Ucci said. “We’re very careful and prudent in our trimming, but we can do better and we can do more.”
Currently, the company manages 6,200 miles of electric power lines within the state. According to the latest filings from Rhode Island Energy to the PUC, the company spent some $12 million last year on vegetation management, and trimmed or removed trees along 1,367 miles of power lines.
Power outages from tree-related causes are on the decline. In 2020, the company recorded 2,568 outages caused by trees, interrupting the service of more than 350,000 customers. Last year, the company recorded 1,449 outages caused by trees, interrupting service for 128,000 customers.
The right-tree, right-time program, said Ucci, is the utility company’s way of trying to encourage people to plant trees that don’t grow into power lines.
“If they are going to plant, and it’s in the vicinity of electric infrastructure, they [should] try to do so thoughtfully,” he said. “But at the end of the day if they plant a tree and it grows into the power lines it’ll be a problem for us to solve.”
But municipalities are pushing back on the legislation, and at least two, Newport and Middletown, passed resolutions asking lawmakers to reject it as written and form a task force to examine the issue.
“It’s a power grab, it’s an overreach,” said Maureen Cronin, chair of the Newport Tree Commission, about the legislation. “They’re doing it all under the auspices of climate change, which is ludicrous in and of itself because the canopy and vegetation will help with it.”
Some municipalities are protective of the progress they have made in expanding their tree canopy. Newport tree warden Scott Wheeler said the urban landscape has a real economic impact on the city; people choose to live or retire there because they think it’s beautiful.
Wheeler also said, from the perspective of a tree warden, the bills just aren’t necessary.
“There’s not a single case of a Rhode Island community or a tree warden interfering with needed line trimming that resulted in a power outage,” he said. “This is a bill aimed at fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. The reality is the majority of outages are not caused by trees within the trim window that fall into the wires. The ones that are falling during major storms, these are the trees that are adjacent to our power lines that are 30 or 50 feet away.”
The real fix for vegetation-related power outages, Wheeler said, is a more intensive inventory process that identifies more hazards adjacent to power lines, but not necessarily within the trim window. The bills also need more checks and balances against Rhode Island Energy and an arbitration process where they can seek relief if a private property owner refuses to have a tree removed, he added.
“Unless we’re going to make the residential neighborhood and backyard with a power line resemble a transmission line where there are no trees for 300 feet, you’re going to have outages,” he said.
Both bills were held for further study.