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Homeowners blame power outages on utility's failure to trim trees

Jim Morrow of Euless said he called Oncor Electric Delivery four times last year about the need to trim trees around power lines that serve his home.

"They said they would send somebody out, and they never did," said a disgusted Morrow, whose home was without power a week ago when he returned from a hospital after suffering a heart attack.

During and after the widespread power outages, a number of North Texas residents complained about inadequate tree trimming. Another Euless homeowner, Kenny Price, said he believes that the "untold story" of the outages is the extent to which Oncor's failure to maintain an adequate tree-trimming program caused limbs to damage power lines.

At one location in his neighborhood, Price said, "you could not even tell the [power] poles were there until the tree limbs came down." His home was without electricity for 36 hours, with power restored Monday morning.

Biggest winter outage

Primarily because of the record snowfall, Oncor faced the daunting task of conducting about 500,000 power restorations over a five-day period ending Monday night.

Most of the outages were in Dallas-Fort Worth. Oncor spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar said the company's workers are justifiably proud of accomplishing its largest power-restoration effort ever for a winter storm.

"Could our vegetation management be better? Yes," she acknowledged.

She quickly added, however, that the company must balance maintaining sufficient electric-power reliability with keeping tree-trimming costs within reason and at a level acceptable to the Texas Public Utility Commission. The company says it spent $69 million on vegetation management in 2008 to reduce outages and make it safer for Oncor employees to maintain and repair power lines.

Opposition to trimming

Oncor's work is made more difficult by residents who oppose company tree-trimming -- sometimes with threats of physical violence -- and by those who plant trees near power lines.

During the recent outage, in the community of Luella in Grayson County, "we had someone pull a gun on a tree-trimming crew," Cuellar said. Oncor called police and waited for officers to arrive before resuming work, she said.

In Fort Worth, a homeowner "parked his car, a Hummer, underneath his tree, to keep the tree-trimming crews from accessing it," Cuellar said. The homeowner still had power and seemingly didn't care that neighbors lacked power, she said.

In trimming trees around "feeder" lines that run from electric substations to neighborhoods, Oncor maintains a clearance of at least 10 feet, 4 inches "as a safety zone for workers around live wires," Cuellar said. That allows for "an average four years of regrowth" before tree limbs might again threaten the lines, she said.

Oncor has long been criticized by residents who say its tree-trimming crews butcher trees, ruining scenery and lowering property values.

Cuellar responded that tree trimming around power lines is "extremely dangerous work. We don't trim for aesthetics. We wish we never had to trim a tree."

Owners in the way

When property owners refuse to let Oncor trim trees -- which it has a legal right to do when power lines are threatened -- the company attempts to "work with them" and gain their support, Cuellar said.

A "refusal" by a property owner can significantly delay a trimming project and increase the chances of an outage.

"The biggest problem we are facing now is refusals," Cuellar said. "You can trim 10 miles of a line, but if one person refuses to let you trim, that can jeopardize everyone who is served on the line."

Oncor has information at www.oncor.com/trees, complete with animated illustrations, that explains how proper tree planting and maintenance can minimize threats to power lines.

Oncor says it spent $25 million on the recent power restoration, with workers putting in 16-hour shifts and some contract crews coming from Missouri and Tennessee. Oncor is allowed to recover restoration costs under a rate structure approved by the PUC, which regulates Oncor.

Going underground?

Some residents question why Oncor doesn't bury more power lines, which potentially could reduce outages and the misery and expense associated with them.

Jon Spijkerman, a nuclear physicist who lives in north Arlington, said his home experienced outages of varying duration nine times last year. He wants to see U.S. power providers shift to underground lines like those common in the Netherlands, his native country.

There, he said, if the power goes out, the utility is responsible for paying costs for affected residents, including hotel rooms and restaurant meals. Here, Oncor is not responsible for such costs, which for some residents totaled several hundred dollars during the recent outage -- or perhaps even more, when the cost of replacing spoiling food is added.

Cuellar said underground lines cost far more than overhead lines to construct and can still be vulnerable to outages in some instances. She said, however, that Oncor will work witheveryone from large developers to individual homeowners who want underground lines -- provided they pay for them.

'Smart' technology

Oncor aims to reduce the length and severity of outages by installing new digital "smart" meters at homes and businesses and "smart" switches on power lines, Cuellar said. In locations with smart switches, power can be restored more quickly "because the technology can detect where the outage is" and an automated switch can re-establish service.

Oncor has installed roughly 90,000 smart meters in Tarrant County and expects to finish the project in the county by the end of 2012. Throughout its entire system, Oncor plans to install more than 3 million smart meters for $690 million, Cuellar said.

Even with the power restoration effort having been essentially completed by Monday night, not everybody in Tarrant County had regained power.

As of Friday night, Carl and Linda Shires were still struggling to get power restored for a second time to their home in the Meadowbrook area of east Fort Worth. Oncor also plans to run a new line to the Shireses' house, the couple said.

But first, Oncor workers said, they had to deal with a familiar issue: trimming some pesky tree limbs.

JACK Z. SMITH, 817-390-7724

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