Sunday, May 29, 2011

Published Order for Case 10-E-0155

Here is the pdf of the Case order released late last week by the PSC.

While the guidelines, commentary and discussion are more detailed that that of the original Press Release, it must be noted that in many areas, these new guidelines fall short of what LORAX had hoped to achieve. The most apparent lack is that of public oversight / review / comments on new TVMPs and related procedures for high density ROWs, etc. Another area of lack relates to detailed environmental, bio-habitat and ecosystem services analysis. It is unclear how enhanced guidelines for ROW management and the now-required mitigation planning can be created without these science-based tools forming a baseline.

Finally, there is an extended discussion about a modified "tiered" vegetation management approach - essentially adopted in the DPS staff commentary on the guideline which states that preferred vegetation should be left in the ROWs, rather than simply undertaking clear cutting. In this discussion by DPS staff, the LORAX provided diagram outlining "tiered management" is dismissed as being too rigid and not reflecting the need for adoption of a variable approach based upon site specific ROW conditions due to tower type, terrain and wire placement. This is unnecessary obfuscation on the part of DPS staff - it as clear from LORAX materials that the diagram was an example of the possibility of using this technique without hazard, not a rigid "one-size-fits-all" mandate on heights and distances. In any case, the final outcome should be better vegetation management decisions based upon actual site conditions. Which is good.

Other good guideline updates include the requirement (of Con Ed and O&R) for proper and clear advanced notification, enhanced training of contractor work crews, as well as the requirement to provide contact information for VM complaints and questions - provided on notifications, on web sites and by in-field contractors when asked.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Video Archive of PCS Hearing on 10-E-0155

Although the PSC Press Release release (posted below last week) provides only a schematic overview of the 8 recommendations provided by DPS staff to the PSC and thence unanimously adopted, the Q&A discussion which occurred during the hearing is quite illuminating.

Here is the link to the webcast archive:

The pertinent section to view is between 79:00 and 101:00 minutes on the video.

What is most interesting is the language (the discourse) being used by both the DPS staff and the Commissioners in terms of the feedback from residents and communities along the ROWs. Although a few areas of the presentation do not clearly discuss the various nuances and still provide much of the "older" narrative (such as the implied requirements of FERC/NERC FAC-003-1), the general staff and Commission tone is very supportive of the public concern.

In the staff's Powerpoint on the proposed guidelines, a summary of issues that came up during public hearings is presented - this section is a nice bullet-list of public concerns as documented by LORAX and other commentators. Then, the actual proposed guidelines are summarized.

In both discussions, the concerns of homeowners, municipalities and environmentalists are taken as valid and important, along with the over-arching need for a "mid-course" revision of the 2005 guidelines to provide a better environmental balance, the need for clearer directions to the utilities (concerning notification and thoughtful more limited vegetation removal in lieu of clear-cutting), and the underlying need for better contractor training and supervision.

All of this is a good change in tone coming from both the DPS staff and the Commission itself.

Now let's see how the actual order is written - what details are included at what level of specificity. Unfortunately, there was no discussion of possible public review of said guidelines and of updated TVMPs.

But overall, from the discussion documented in the Commission webcast, we should all celebrate the impact we have had on this issue! Thanks to LORAX members, municipal officials, local residents, RiverKeeper, Sierra Club and others in our combined efforts to make a change.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

LORAX Comments on Today's PSC CASE 10-E-0155 Ruling

LORAX is supportive of the goals outlined in the new transmission vegetation management regulations. However, as a public interest environmental lobbying group, we have some specific concerns with the guidelines as announced in today's Press Release. (Note: as the actual text of the Order has not yet been released, we have not seen the commentary by DPS Staff nor the discussion by the Commission itself. This commentary may provide additional insight into the intentions and context of each guideline.)

In general, the guidelines enhance notification requirements, provide for a TVMP complaint escalation process, create a distinction between rural ROWs and urban/suburban ROWs, call for more limited vegetation removals (modifying the original Case 04-E-0822 orders requiring clear-cutting of the entire ROW "to the floor"), and require utilities to describe when and what sort of replant mitigation they will provide along impacted ROWs.

All of this is good news when seen from a high level perspective. However, in most instances, the rules do not provide specific criterial or detailed requirements and are thus open to a possibly wide-ranging interpretation by each utility. Yes, the DPS staff must review and approve these updated TVMP documents, but nowhere is there a requirement for any public review of proposed changes to said TVMPs. Given the public outcry and concern about the appearance of DPS staff / utility cronyism, why shouldn't a public review phase be mandated?

The first new regulation concerning notification, in particular, is more expansive that originally proposed:

Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. and Orange and Rockland Utilities, Inc. shall provide individual written notification to all easement encumbered and abutting landowners, local municipal elected officials, and affected state agencies, of cyclic ROW vegetation management work, not more than 180 days nor less than 30 days prior to the commencement of such work.

This requires notification not only of properties with ROW easements within them, but of all properties adjacent to ROWs. Good news. There are two weaknesses, herein, however. First, the notification window can be as short as 30 days - ok for individual landowners, but tougher for municipalities to hold public meetings. Secondly, this notification requirement applies specifically only to Con Ed and O&R, rather than to all state transmission utilities.

In regulation #3, special TVMPs for highly population areas are required:

Con Edison and Orange and Rockland shall develop, for staff review and acceptance, a section in their Long Range Right of Way Management Plans (Plan) specifically addressing how they will conduct their ROW management work on high density ROW areas.

Again, the issue here is that no prescriptive detail is provided as to what sort of changes should be made in dealing with high density population areas. Nor is there a specific criteria defining "high density" - which has previously been an issue in O&R territory.

In terms of mitigation, the new rules call out for public documentation about replanting:

All companies shall develop sections in their Commission approved ROW Management Plans, for staff review and acceptance, to address the circumstances and criteria pursuant to which replanting is warranted.

Once again, however, there are no detailed "base" requirements about when and how mitigation is to be performed. Could a utility simply take Con Ed's position that "We don't replant, period." Would this not fulfill the letter of requirement #6 (quoted above)?

So, over all the ruling is a mix blessing. It offers a lot of possibility for relief, but just how much there will be is based upon an ongoing (an not public) process. LORAX believes that there should be more robust (detailed) requirements as well as public oversight based upon the last 7 years of utility rampage along the ROWs in conjunction with the DPS/PCS's avoidance & justification of said actions.

PSC Issues Ruling on CASE 10-E-0155

Public Service Commission 
Garry A. Brown, Chairman
Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY 12223 Further Details: James Denn | 518.474.7080


— Utilities Required to Improve Public Notification When Maintaining Power Lines —

Albany, NY—5/19/11— The New York State Public Service Commission (Commission) today adopted eight recommendations to improve and clarify utility practices regarding high voltage transmission right-of-way vegetation management practices.

“Maintaining the highest degree of electric system reliability for the benefit of New York’s customers is among the most important of our responsibilities,” said Commission Chairman Garry Brown. “However, there is a real need to ensure that the public is kept fully informed regarding changes to be made to vegetation surrounding high-voltage power lines in the community. These comprehensive new rules will help significantly improve the notification process and will help avoid problems that have occurred in the past.”

The Commission’s earlier policy regarding right-of-way (ROW) management established requirements for utilities’ ROW maintenance programs and ensured adequate record keeping and reporting by the utilities. In addition, the federal Energy Policy Act called for the development and implementation of additional mandatory and enforceable reliability standards for utility ROW maintenance.

The Commission noted that reliability problems are commonly manifested when contact occurs between a tree and a transmission line during, for example, a storm which causes a fault in the transmission circuit which may cause widespread electric system outages. Because of this,effective management of transmission rights-of-way is an essential component of system reliability.

However, in recent months, members of the public and elected officials have expressed concern with respect to the ROW vegetation management practices used by utilities to implement the above described regulatory scheme along their transmission rights-of-way.
These concerns have largely focused on the trimming and removal of trees and other vegetation by utilities in their transmission rights-of-way. Those objecting to the utilities’ practices cite the unwanted aesthetic impacts associated with the utilities’ ROW work, as well as noise, erosion and decreased property value as potential results. Expressions of concern have taken many forms including individual complaints to this department, letters from public officials, municipal resolutions and proposed state legislation.

As part of the public review process, more than 200 written comments were received from interested parties and six public statement hearings were conducted throughout the state at which people who would rather comment orally were able to do so. Staff reviewed the written comments and those made at the public statement hearings, and developed for the Commission’s consideration eight recommendations to improve ROW management practices in the State. Staff also sought public comment on the first seven of its recommendations.

Upon review of the comments, the Commission accepted eight recommendations:

1. Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. and Orange and Rockland Utilities, Inc. shall provide individual written notification to all easement encumbered and abutting landowners, local municipal elected officials, and affected state agencies, of cyclic ROW vegetation management work, not more than 180 days nor less than 30 days prior to the commencement of such work.

2. Con Edison and Orange and Rockland shall provide in their notification details of the type of vegetation management work to be performed, the physical boundaries of the work, the methods and extent of the proposed work, provisions for cleanup and ROW restoration and the expected dates of commencement and completion.

3. Con Edison and Orange and Rockland shall develop, for staff review and acceptance, a section in their Long Range Right of Way Management Plans (Plan) specifically addressing how they will conduct their ROW management work on high density ROW areas.

4. All companies shall submit, for staff review and acceptance, updates to their websites and any printed materials, detailing the rationales and practices governing their ROW management programs.

5. All companies shall establish a direct line of communication between the public and the companies’ vegetation management personnel for questions regarding ROW vegetation management work. Information advising of the opportunity for such communication and how such communication can be accessed shall be made available on the companies’ websites, on all required notifications, and provided by field personnel and contractors upon request.

6. All companies shall develop sections in their Commission approved ROW Management Plans, for staff review and acceptance, to address the circumstances and criteria pursuant to which replanting is warranted.

7. All companies shall develop, if one does not exist or enhance if one does, a section in their plans detailing when and where various types of vegetation will be allowed to remain on a ROW. The section shall incorporate, to the extent possible, a vegetation management approach that recognizes that removal of desirable species is neither required nor preferred. Commensurate training and oversight of field personnel shall also be addressed.

8. The Commission Order containing ROW management requirements issued in Case 04-E-0822 will be appended to this Order.
Staff believes its recommendations appropriately reflect the concerns that have been expressed, are cost-effective and sensitive to environmental, aesthetic and community values, and protect the continued provision of safe and reliable electric service and recommends their adoption.

The Commission’s decision today, when issued, may be obtained by going to the Commission Documents section of the Commission’s Web site at and entering Case Number 10-E-0155 in the input box labeled "Search for Case/Matter Number". Many libraries offer free Internet access. Commission orders may also be obtained from the Commission’s Files Office, 14th floor, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY 12223 (518-474-2500).

Friday, May 6, 2011

FERC Actions regarding Transmission Vegetation Management

A letter of inquiry sent today to the FERC re: Transmission Vegetation Management:

Dear Commissioners;

I am writing this as part of the GEF LORAX Working Group's ongoing follow-up to the Transmission Reliability Conference of last October 26, 2010 organized by Mr. Hegerle and staff.

As of this time, it appears that FERC staff have concluded that FERC does not have specific congressional regulatory authority to prescriptively define vegetation management practices beyond the statement of reliability-related clearance measures in FAC-003-1 (and as modified in FAC-003-2 r5 which is pending final approval).

This still leaves open and unresolved serious issues brought to the fore by landowners and Congressional representatives concerning clear-cutting along the ROW with the associated negative environmental, health and property value impacts. WIth the impact of global warming including stronger storms and extreme temperatures, the need to ensure electrical system reliability is even more apparent than ever. However, there is an growing nationwide awareness that methodological changes must be found by which to reduce the impacts of transmission line vegetation management practices (TVMPs) such as the current wide-spread reliance on clear cutting across the ROW; to find solutions that maintain visual and noise buffers, create less impact on property values, ensure air quality, reduce extensive flooding and erosion, slow the spread of invasive plants and animals, and engage in ecosystem/habitat restoration to help ensure species preservation (such as our song bird, amphibian, and butterfly populations).

What actions has FERC taken to date as a result of the Technical Conference?

The FERC web site has recently been updated to "better educate" the public (landowners) that the federal government (FERC) can not regulate TVMPs at the level of granularity which would allow exclusion of clear-cutting practices. Rather, the web site and associated FAQ clearly points out that the state PUCs / PSCs are responsible for management and oversight of utility's TVMPs. This information in now prominent on the FERC web site and on the downloadable TVM FAQ. But is this sufficient?

The goal here seems to be to deflect public outcry from FERC back to the state level. However, the pervasive motivation ("excuse") of NERC fine avoidance given for extreme clear-cutting by the Transmission Operators (TOs) has not been adequately addressed by FERC/NERC yet. Historical NERC fine data for the last couple of years shows a very small percentage of tree contact or R1/R2 incursion violations in the overall mix of fines. So something does not add up!

The Commission is reportedly planning to reach out to state regulators and TOs to let them know that clear-cutting is not a preferred or required method of TVM to meet Federal standards. What this outreach will consist of and how vigorous this attempt at industry "reeducation" might be is not clear yet. But time is of the essence as ROW clear-cutting continues nationwide.

Landowners and concerned groups such as LORAX need to better understand the position that FERC will be taking in this matter. If stronger guidelines are not possible based upon current congressional authorization, if NERC fine structures can not be made less onerous for simple safety zone incursions, if the industry and state regulators will not listen to the urgent need to balance their TVM methodologies so as to better reflect public (ratepayer) demands, then a robust grass roots effort to address this issue at both the Federal (additional Congressional legislation) and state levels (public utility commission guidelines) is our only recourse as concerned citizens. This would be a long and tenuous process.

As LORAX has pointed out to our own state regulatory body (NYS Public Service Commission) in PSC Case 10-E-0155, a major issue that is often avoided in this discussion concerns network reliability, capacity, equipment age, operator training, software reliability and inter-operator communications. As seen in the Joint US/Canada Report on the 2003 East Coast blackout, all of these factors conspired to make the grid system much less robust and unstable such that a couple of random tree contacts in Ohio could become significant factors in the cascade of human and machine failures leading to the breakdown of overall electric grid system integration and massive blackout.

Thus, the underlying issues are far greater than the current focus on TVMPs. Unfortunately, the issue of system reliability is a much larger problem requiring designing / upgrading the overall grid (newer more modern equipment, greater capacity in lines which run over existing ROWs, digital monitoring, simulation and "Smart Grid" technologies, and enhanced scenerio-based operator training). Again, a long term process.

Related to our call for use of new technology and systems, LORAX has also pointed out that current clear-cutting practices are actually a costly "solution" for a problem that could be best handled through the use of LIDAR, regular scans of transmission corridors, GIS-based computer modeling, and a "just in time" approach to spot vegetation management. ("Best" here means a less costly methodology which would also significantly reduce or eliminate the various negative impacts of current practices.) Such methodologies could be implemented in a relatively short period of time by each utility and TVMPs could be quickly updated and approved based upon such changes. Thus, LORAX believes that the option of this approach should be more widely disseminated by FERC through the utility industry and state regulatory framework.

We hope to continue our dialog with FERC so as to help ensure that these issues will be addressed to the satisfaction of all.


Mark Gilliland
GEF LORAX Working Group, chair