Trees draw scrutiny in battle to keep the lights on
No one seemed to know who owned the unhealthy trees in the alley behind Rexmere Road in Baltimore, the ones growing amid the electrical lines, but there was no mystery about the cause of every power outage around there.

Meetings were organized. Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke tracked down people with property maps. The Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi at Clare Court, surprised to find that most of the trees were theirs, hired a contractor to trim like mad just before superstorm Sandy hit in October.

It worked. The lights stayed on.

"It was like a eureka moment, believe me," said Susann Schemm, a Rexmere Road resident who lost power for eight days after the June 29 derecho storm.

Trees and branches falling on power lines cause most bad-weather outages, including the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s territory during two big storms this year. As the amount of rough weather buffeting the region mounts, officials and residents alike are taking a harder look at the part trees play in the aggravating — and dangerous — matter of days-long stretches without power.

That's a major shift.

"A decade ago, I think most people didn't want us to trim the trees," said Brian C. Daschbach Sr., vice president of BGE's integrated field services, which includes forestry. "I'd say that today, people do want us to trim the trees."

The state convened a Grid Resiliency Task Force after the June derecho windstorm caused more than 1 million outages statewide in 100-degree heat. The group recommended this fall that utilities be allowed to charge more to make improvements relating directly and indirectly to trees.

The major suggestions: Move limited portions of overhead power lines underground — away from troublesome branches — and "embrace an accelerated tree trimming schedule."

"While the task force is cognizant of the critical and positive role that Maryland's tree canopy plays throughout the state, the task force is convinced that improved vegetation management is a highly effective way to improve the resiliency of the grid," the group said in its report.

Maryland's Public Service Commission, hoping to improve reliability, required in May that utilities trim trees along their entire system every four to five years. The task force then suggested that the first cycle be done in just two years.

But consumer advocates aren't wild about the task force report because it calls for a monthly surcharge, which Gov. Martin O'Malley — speaking generally — suggested could add $1 or $2 to bills. Utility watchdogs say the companies should pay for trimming and "selective undergrounding" from the rates they already charge consumers — rates that BGE is asking permission to increase.

"Tree trimming is always just part of maintaining your system," said Paula M. Carmody, who represents residential utility customers as head of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel. "Trees have been around forever."

BGE — which spent $34.5 million on vegetation management last year, up nearly $11 million from 2007 — likes the task force recommendations. Officials at the utility say they use the suggested trimming and infrastructure strategy in communities with reliability problems.

Tree-heavy Pikesville is one example. BGE spokesman Rob Gould calls the Baltimore County community one of the hardest hit in the region during Hurricane Irene last year and the summer derecho.

After Irene, BGE put together a Pikesville to-do list: new equipment, underground cable in forests too dense for the overhead power lines, and a lot of tree trimming and removal.

Though the planning had started months earlier, BGE officials said work was still in the early stages when the derecho roared through with less than an hour's warning. The storm knocked down so many trees and did so much damage to the local grid that some Pikesville customers were without power for up to eight days.

Afterward, BGE kept working. The undergrounding and much of the new equipment will come next year, but the utility removed at least 70 trees in the most walloped part of Pikesville — on top of ones felled by the derecho — and trimmed many more.

When Sandy blew through in late October, tree damage to the community's lines was so much less severe that most residents had their power back by the next evening, according to BGE.