PUD targeting trouble-making trees to keep lights on

EVERETT — Damage from trees falling on power lines is the leading cause of power outages in this area, and the Snohomish County Public Utility District is hoping this year to cut down on that total.

The PUD is stepping up its tree trimming and removal this fall in anticipation of the winter storm season, officials said.

The PUD usually trims or takes out trees along about 500 miles of its 3,600 miles of overhead power lines in Snohomish County and on Camano Island every year, spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.

This year the utility is shooting for 700 miles. Currently it takes the PUD seven years to trim or remove all the trees threatening power lines throughout the system for prevention. The plan is to shorten that cycle to five years.

“This is one of the most effective things we can do for (power) reliability,” Neroutsos said.

The PUD this year joined forces with several other utilities, including Puget Sound Energy, and cities in the region to get the word out about all aspects of winter storm preparedness, including the uneasy relationship between trees and power lines.

The “Take Winter by Storm” publicity campaign has been going on for several years. The PUD in the past has participated only on a limited basis, but this year has pitched in $25,000 toward advertising and special events, Neroutsos said.

“We joined this year because we felt it was a good way to get the word out about safety during storms,” he said.

Damage from trees or branches hitting power lines is the No. 1 cause of power outages for both the PUD and Puget Sound Energy.

For the PUD, trees cause 29 percent of the outages, Neroutsos said, followed in rough order by equipment failures, birds or animals and car accidents.

With its stepped-up effort, the PUD expects to spend about $7 million this year on trimming and removing trees.

For Puget Sound Energy, the percentage of outages caused by trees is even higher, 56 percent, spokeswoman Lindsey Walimaki said.

Puget Sound Energy supplies electricity to customers in all or parts of nine counties, including Whidbey Island. It spends about $14 million per year on tree maintenance, Walimaki said.

The utility trims and removes trees along more than 3,000 miles of its 13,000 miles of overhead lines on a 4- to 6-year cycle, she said.

In the fall and winter of 2006, heavy winds and rain caused an unusual number of outages on Whidbey Island, Walimaki said. Since then, the utility has made a special effort there to trim and remove trees that could threaten power lines, she said.

Generally, trees and branches within 12 feet of power lines need to be addressed, according to Puget Sound Energy’s website. Most problem trees are located on public right-of-way, Walimaki said. When “at risk” trees are located on private property, both utilities work with property owners and arborists to find solutions.

State law allows utilities to trim or remove any tree that poses a potential hazard, even on private property, without permission of the property owner if all attempts have been made to reach an agreement.

Still, Puget Sound Energy and the PUD don’t remove trees on private property without permission, both spokespeople said. It’s rare that property owners are uncooperative, they said.

When a tree is removed on private property, the PUD provides the land owner with a gift certificate they can take to a nursery to replace the tree with one that grows shorter, such as a vine maple, Neroutsos said. Both utilities provide planting advice on their websites.

The PUD’s expenditures on trees include about $65,000 for replacement, he said.

Puget Sound Energy spends about $500,000 of its $14 million tree budget on replacing trees, Walimaki said.

Property owners are advised not to trim or remove trees near power lines themselves, but to call their utility.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

Get ready

Winter storm preparedness: http://takewinterbystorm.org/

Snohomish County PUD tree information: tinyurl.com/b2r2o29

Puget Sound Energy tree information: http://tinyurl.com/a8s4tl9

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