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How much is too much for utilities to trim?

As Hurricane Sandy pummels the Atlantic Seaboard, high winds have toppled trees and taken power lines with them.

In the wake of previous severe storms, power providers have targeted trees in their efforts to keep the lights on. However, conservation groups see these towering timbers as crucial to the environment, and say some utility companies have taken vegetation management too far. Sandy may just add fuel to the debate.

Seth Guikema, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the relationship between hurricanes and power outages for seven years, said utility companies are not opposed to trees. The fact is, he said, that they know research shows that heavier tree coverage causes more outages.

Guikema cited a North Carolina town where regulations basically outlawed tree trimming and removal. The residents were willing to deal with more power outages, he said, to preserve their tree cover.

Abigail Hopper, energy adviser to Gov. Martin O’Malley and acting director of the Maryland Energy Administration, said that often residents don’t want their trees felled. However, when a tree falls into a power wire, customers are upset the electricity is out.

“There is a little bit of a disconnect sometimes,” said Hopper, who acknowledged being guilty of this mindset.

One way utility companies attempt to fix this disconnect is through personalized education. Both Pepco and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. highlighted the fact that they examine every tree individually before taking action.

“We really do try to personalize the effort,” said Rob Gould, a spokesman for BGE. “[We] work one-on-one with the customers, explain to them the individual situation that we see and how they would benefit from aggressive tree trimming or pruning or removal.”

Pepco has a four-year plan for tree removal, in which it looks at how trees will develop over the next four years, said Dan Landry, senior staff forester for Pepco Holdings Inc., the parent company of Pepco. And it also employs a certified arborist to look at every tree that could be removed, he said.

A four-year plan is “critical,” said Guikema, because it allows a company to be more strategic about what trees it takes down.

However, Caren Madsen, chairwoman of the Conservation Montgomery Board of Directors, argues Pepco has not practiced sound vegetation removal.

“We think that they have been overzealous in their pruning techniques,” Madsen said. “They have largely undignified a lot of very lovely, mature trees that are important to the county tree canopy.”

While Madsen agreed some trees must be cut, she said Pepco often falsely blames trees for outages. One example Madsen gave is windless, sunny, daytime power outages, when a downed tree is unlikely to be the cause.

Madsen points to Pepco’s marketing, in which she said the company “brags” about how many trees it has pruned or removed, but makes no mention of equipment improvements or the burial of wires.

Electric providers also must negotiate with homeowners when a targeted tree is off the right of way.

A recent report released by O’Malley’s office titled “Weathering the Storm: Report of the Grid Resiliency Taskforce,” details where improvements can be made to the electrical grid. One of the 11 recommendations in the report calls for a task force to “evaluate statewide vegetation management regulations and practices.”

The job of the task force, Hopper said, will be to go through the issues, identify regulatory challenges, discuss what is trying to be solved and figure out how to best educate citizens. She said she hopes foresters, meteorologists, utility companies and members of the community all sit down at the same table to resolve how best to keep the lights on during storms.

“The answer may be — well, cutting limbs is not the best way — maybe the best way is some other idea we have not thought of yet,” Hopper said. “But I think we need to have the conversation.”

While many would agree the best solution puts the wires underground, Guikema said, when he did the calculations for BGE, it led to a “very substantial” increase in power rates.

“It depends how much people want their power rates to go up,” Guikema said. “It’s really, really expensive to put lines underground.”