May 10th, 2006
Trees vs Electric Consumers

“Projections from computer simulations indicate that 100 million mature trees in United States cities (three trees for every two homes) could reduce annual energy use by 30000 million kWh (25800 million kcal), saving about US$2000 million in energy costs (Huang et al., 1987). Avoided investment in new power supplies and an estimated 9 million tonnes (8165 million kg) annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants could augment these savings considerably. Even when the costs of planting, watering and maintaining trees are considered, tree-planting is a more cost-effective energy and carbon dioxide conservation strategy than many other fuel-saving measures.. — D.J. Nowak and E.G. McPherson Quantifying the impact of trees: The Chicago Urban Forest Climate Project

This morning’s Austin-American Statesman incites us with the headline Can trees and power lines be saved?, goading Austinites into another lose-lose either/or debate. The article (which I won’t bother to link to since the Statesman’s site is readable “by registration only”) outlines the recommendation from a City Council task force sent to review Austin Energy’s tree-trimming policy after public outcry at the complete removal of some lovely old trees in Hyde Park and other older Austin neighborhoods. The task force says quite plainly, “We need both.” The solution to saving the power lines is not to get rid of the trees.

After about 52,000 utility customers lost power during last Thursday’s storm, Austin Utility cited that the number one cause of downed power lines was trees. Some people were out of power for four days because of the difficulty in moving all the trees of the power lines.

Austin Energy goes on to pat themselves on the back. “Only the utility’s ambitious $10 million-a-year tree-trimming policy saved the city far worse outages–to as many as 150,000 homes.” said their spokesman, Ed Clark.

The task force report does a good job at exploring all the costs involved in keeping and removing trees. The current tree-trimming program costs Austinites $10 million a year. But both the number of times power is lost and the duration of that loss has decreased since 2000.

However the report also recognizes that without trees, temperatures in the city would be about 6 degrees warmer. That translates into expenses for both the customer and the utility which would have to up their ability to provide more energy just to maintain current levels of comfort.

While I agree that tree-trimming is sometimes necessary, I don’t think the people hired by Austin Energy know what they’re doing…at least not the ones that butchered the troublesome pecan tree in my front yard. They sheared off one branch at the top that arched toward the lines. Not only did this leave the tree unbalanced and much more likely to be uprooted in high winds after heavy rains, but it created a worse problem. The limb below the lines, now exposed to full sun, sprouted scores of thin branches which have begun growing straight up through the lines. This weak new growth has created a far more dangerous and difficult to deal with situation than existed before Austin Energy arrived with chainsaws. I’m now faced with the possibility of removing this tree completely.

After our neighborhood lost many trees in a bad storm of September 1996, I noticed that subsequent storms brought more limbs down than normal. My arborist said that when established trees lose major limbs from trimming or storms, the nearby trees and limbs become more exposed. Trees limbs grow in tandem with each other, building a support structure. Even dead branches help buffer the wind and keep branches from whipping around.

Too many trees in Austin, especially cedar elms, are trimmed leaving long bare limbs with heavy growth just at the end of the branches. Imagine tying a rock to the end of a rope and swinging it around. It’s that kind of force that enables a strong wind to snap huge limbs off these trees.

We need to make sure that trees are trimmed effectively and not in a way that causes bigger problems down the road. And, yes, we need more trees in the city. Whether you think of it as your patriotic duty as a citizen to reduce the nation’s energy consumption, a necessary action as a consumer to reduce your own energy bills, or just as a plain dirt gardener who loves trees…we need to grow trees.

“A study of urban forests in Modesto, CA shows that for each $1 invested in urban forest management, $1.89 in benefits is returned to residents. City trees actually remove 154 tons of air pollutants, increase property values by over $1.5 million, and provide shade that saves over $1 million. This information convinced city officials to increase the tree budget and an electric utility company to invest $20,000 in developing the Modesto Tree Foundation.” — USDA Forest Service

by M Sinclair Stevens

7 Responses to post “Trees vs Electric Consumers”

  1. From M2 (Austin):

    Yep, yep, yep. It’s a right hand, left hand thing. I’ve always been very pleased with our city’s tree coverage, and horrified by the “trip to the tips” method. (Or I thought I was horrified. When I mentioned to my arborist, before I knew better, that I didn’t want him to do that, he had such a look on his face that I realized I didn’t really *have* a strong opinion on the subject. Comparatively speaking.

    Are there no alternatives to having the elecrical wires strung up?

    The report suggest several strategies. Underground wiring is good in new areas, but the cost to retrofit old neighborhoods like mine is prohibitive. Wiring tree limbs together is supposed to help keep them from moving around so wildly. One of my cedar elms is wired ($300) in an attempt to save it from removal for another five years or so. On smaller lots, people could try planting smaller trees. — mss

  2. From M1EK:

    Preserving the trees, of course, is preferable. But the exact same demographic that demanded a stop to cutting was complaining the loudest about the length of time without power.

    We’re stuck with the current third-world power infrastructure (and sidewalk infrastructure; but don’t get me started) for the time being, so it’s foolish to say “don’t trim” or even “trim a lot less”. Your right to have beautiful trees ought to be balanced with the right to not have your beautiful tree cut off power to my house.

    Here’s my simple proposal. Like with the McMansion ordinance, of course, this would never work, since people who already ‘got theirs’ never want to pay, but anyway: Tree Trimming and Power Outages.

    I can’t tell if your just trolling for links, or just crotchety. In either case, I’ll attempt to clarify. I’m not against trimming trees. I am against the type of tree-trimming which leaves the trees more vulnerable to wind damage and more likely to cause property damage.

    To continue your argument…you have no “right” to electricity. You may feel entitled to it because you’ve had it all your life, but your a merely a customer. As customers, in Austin, we’ve made a gamble. We gone for cheaper, overhead power lines on the chance that once or twice a year we’ll be inconvenienced. One could choose to pay more and live in a community where the power lines were underground, and enjoy trees and a more secure system. Or one could choose to move to Las Vegas and not worry about the trees. But then you’d be paying more for the additional electricity you’ll use because of the greater temperatures. If you want electrical service which will never fail, then pay for putting the lines underground. Because I lost electricity for the longest time this year due to demand overloads, not storm damage, I prefer to plant trees and reduce demand. — mss

  3. From Deirdre:

    “Tree trimmers” from the Asplundh company were outsourced in my area of Fort Worth by TXU to maintain the power lines.

    They completely butchered three very old black oak trees (over 70 years old) in my front yard. I tried to stop them from trimming so much off the trees. I called the city, I tried to call TXU. I called the county extension office who could do nothing but refer me to a journalist that had been doing an article on the complaints against Asplundh (which are numerous). Eventually I called the police who came out and stopped them until someone from code enforcement could come out. None of these people could do anything since apparently TXU has control over an easement of your property that is 10 feet from the pole. According to them they can trim anything they want within that space including cutting down the whole tree if they feel like it.

    The property owner’s wishes are of no concern to them. Every Asplundh worker, supervisor and manager that I came into contact with that day was smug and just laughed in my face ignoring me as they went ahead and climbed my trees and cut off all the limbs. I have never been so angry in all my life!

    The men they had climbing the trees and trimming them certainly had no license as arborists and nor did their supervisor or the manager that was on call. None of them were qualified to be judging how to trim the trees properly. Despite this the code enforcement officer let them go ahead and cut off every lateral branch on one side of the tree at the trunk that crossed the 10 foot area, leaving the trees unstable, not to mention aesthetically repulsive.

    The city and the government should not allow TXU electric to outsource workers that have no arborist licenses and who employee day workers to butcher the trees. TXU should not have carte blanche to come in and destroy the customer’s property, reducing property value without the owner having some kind of recourse to stop them, or dispute the trimming of the branches before it takes place. People need to address this with their representatives, with the Public Utilities Commission, with their neighborhood organizations and city officials in order to make it stop.

    Here are some other examples:

    Corpus Christi: Homeowners say contractors doing hack-job to their trees

    Mount Vernon: Controversy surrounds how trees are trimmed

    Garden Banter UK: It’s power line tree trimming time again

    Diedre, thanks for the links. This seems like an universal problem. — mss

  4. From guy in austin:

    My understanding is the people that trim trees are paid on the weight of the limbs cut. This seems kind of inane. It doesn’t reward cutting trees in a way that saves the tree. It simply promotes hacking away as much as the trimmer can get away with. I think long term it makes sense to start looking at burying power lines.

  5. From Lira:

    I’m not sure if ‘guy in austin’s comment is true. What I’ve been informed is that the tree crews will be paid on each tree that is trimmed, not by total weight, which sounds like it’d be a complicated process.

    To avoid tree and line conflicts, I recommend planting smaller ornamentals or fruit trees near the overhead lines- if you’re planting something like an elm, make sure it’s offset and clear!

  6. From chris:

    They get paid by the hour and I’ve yet to meet a manager that wasn’t a certified arborist. A growing number of the working foremans in our area are also isa certified. Its not the lowly tree trash, as you seem to view them, that sets the specs for trimming its the utility that tells them how far to take the trees back in a speecies specific manner as trees grow at different rates. Its nice to see how little respect is shown to the working men of our country.

  7. From George:

    There are few “arborists” on an Asplundh butchering crew. These are the least qualified most destructive crews O have seen touch a tree anywhere. They have less honor than W, and less brains and ability as well.