Keeping Power Flowing Safely

Hood River Electric Cooperative trims trees and removes vegetation to improve safety and keep the power on

Hood River Electric Cooperative linemen trim or remove trees and other vegetation growing near power lines. This helps keep your power flowing safely and reliably. Pictured are Foreman Doug Balzer, left, and Journeyman Lineman Austin Porter. Photo by Libby Calnon

Despite our best efforts to maintain a safe and reliable power system, Mother Nature often has the last word.

Strong winds snap trees like toothpicks. Heavy rains saturate the ground, weakening tree root systems. Ice and heavy snowfall weigh down and break branches. Sparks ignite vegetation and spread fire.

Regardless of the cause, when any part of a tree contacts a power line, the result is the same: loss of electrical service and compromised public safety.

Even before alleged poor maintenance of transmission lines by Pacific Gas & Electric caused deadly wildfires in California, Hood River Electric Cooperative (HREC) invested a lot of your money on inspections and tree trimming.

Although our efforts have been successful to date, we are taking a deeper look into our practices to make sure we are protecting our community. We are fortunate our service territory is fairly condensed and largely in irrigated farmland.

Other utilities are not so lucky. Northern Lights Inc., based in Sagle, Idaho, annually spends about $2 million on trees, says Kristin Mettke, engineering and operations manager.

One of the primary goals for HREC is to keep the lights on while keeping our costs down. Staying ahead of danger tree falling and trimming will result in fewer outages. This means less overtime for our employees and a safer, more reliable system for you, our members.

At HREC, our linemen handle almost all of our right-of-way clearing in-house. They have a vested interest in keeping the lines clear. They are dedicated to providing reliable, cost-effective power to our members. Keeping this work in-house is not only a cost-saving strategy, it allows us to have greater control of the quality of work.

Trees along our system’s 230 miles of overhead line are trimmed an average of every three to five years, although faster growing areas are visited more often. Crews are redirected as new hazards are discovered.

During a storm, people are more willing to have their trees trimmed. HREC experienced this after the 2012 ice storm. We received many calls from members requesting we trim their trees. During quiet years, members tend to forget about trees. This is a reminder that we must stay diligent in our trimming efforts.

Our crew trims trees year-round, and we have always tried to accommodate member preferences in how their trees are maintained. But given the increased risk of wildfire, there is a new focus on tree trimming in the industry, and there are new tactics HREC may need to initiate.

Clearing a 20-foot area of vegetation around the base of poles in high fire danger zones and with equipment mounted overhead is one such technique. There is a higher risk of ignition on these types of poles. The large, cleared area helps mitigate that risk.

Another practice becoming more common is to trim trees well beyond the 5 feet of minimum clearance from the nearest conductor.

Both techniques require member cooperation. More aggressive trimming, creating a vegetation-free zone around certain poles and falling danger trees outside the rights-of-way help us keep the lights on and keep you safe.

As part of state-mandated wildfire mitigation plans, some utilities plan to extend the width of their easements for vegetation clearing from 50 feet to 200 feet in some areas to provide better protection from windstorms and to serve as a fire break. HREC is not looking to do anything quite that radical, but we need to be a little more aggressive in how we maintain our rights-of-way.

Distribution line rights-of-way typically are 20 feet—not enough to prevent things outside the right-of-way from causing problems. If you see any dead or dying trees outside of what we typically trim, please let us know.

Wildfire is a serious concern. In 2020, fires in Oregon burned about 1 million acres, which is almost double the 10-year average. In some cases, utilities have been held financially responsible for wildfires even though the likely cause was lightning, a manmade fire, or a naturally occurring event.

If there are HREC facilities in the area and a wildfire starts, we need to be able to prove we didn’t cause it. That is why HREC is investing in a more intensive vegetation management plan in addition to the fire mitigation plan. Part of these plans will be to visually document a clear right-of-way with our new infrared camera. We will likely spend several months in 2021 documenting our well-maintained rights-of-way.

Federated Rural Electric Insurance CEO Phil Irwin appreciates the investments. Federated is HREC’s insurance provider. The mutual insurance company buys reinsurance to mitigate its risk.

In the wake of PG&E’s proposed $24.5 billion settlement of all wildfire claims, reinsurers have little appetite to write policies for utilities, Irwin says.

When talking to reinsurers, Irwin emphasizes the difference between PG&E and community-owned utilities like HREC, where staff live in the communities they serve and problems are much more personal.

Extended fire seasons, bug kill, and drought have made tree trimming not only the law but the right thing to do.

It is our obligation to keep the community safe. We hope you will partner with us to make that happen. If you see a problem tree, please contact HREC. It takes a team effort to keep our community safe.

Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place

Trees beautify homes and property and can lower utility bills if planted in the right spot. But care should be taken with trees near power lines. Outages are caused by trees or limbs falling on lines. Restoring power is expensive— so is trimming trees.

Before planting trees, bushes, or shrubs, look up to see where overhead power lines may conflict with their growth. Remember: A 2-foot-tall fir seedling will grow more than 100 feet tall and 30 feet wide.

After you have looked up, look down. Planting over underground utilities can result in outages when tree or shrub roots grow into the lines, or in a potentially deadly shock if you dig into buried lines.

Your local nursery, garden center, Hood River Electric Cooperative, or state forestry department can help you determine the appropriate tree for your situation.

For information on tree selection and care, visit the National Arbor Day Foundation website.