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Crews work to prevent power outages

Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 6:47 PM EDT
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KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - West Virginia leads the nation in power outages that are only becoming more frequent and lasting longer, despite power companies in the state spending more than $1 billion during the past decade trying to reduce the impact.

Appalachian Power had more than 6,000 outages caused by trees last year, according to documents the company filed with the Public Service Commission (PSC). That was almost 2,000 more outages than the second-leading cause -- equipment failures.

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Appalachian Power began a vegetation management program in 2014, hoping to reduce those tree-caused outages. It took six years for crews to trim every power line end-to-end before starting a new cycle in 2020 to continue clearing around each wire every four years.

Since the program started, overall outages caused by trees has increased. However, a closer look reveals that a majority of the problems are now caused by trees outside of the 40-foot-wide trimming right of way.

“The best thing, I believe, is to stay on cycle,” Appalachian Power regional forestry manager Phil Ross said. “Each time we come through the right of way, we take a look at the trees that are adjacent to, and trees that are outside of the right of way are our largest problem. Having that regularly scheduled look at them, we are more likely to catch something before something goes wrong.”

Ross said Appalachian Power spends around $50 million per year on tree trimming, but it’s often a lottery trying to cut down the next tree before it falls on wires and knocks the power out.

Ross said he would like to spend more on trimming to speed up the current four-year cycle, but said the power company has to balance out its costs with the benefits. Appalachian Power President Chris Beam said those costs are passed on to customers in the form of higher rates and surcharges.

Ross and his crews try to reduce vegetation growth within the right of way by spraying herbicide after they cut down the brush. It’s a hard job that includes people on the ground with chainsaws and others up in the sky in bucket trucks cutting branches that are too close to wires.

“We are looking at the right of way here and it’s only four years old,” Ross said while working with a crew in Kanawha County. “The brush is 12 to 15 foot tall already. If you get herbicides on it, the brush in the right of way has to start back from seed. Well, it is going to spend a couple of years just trying to break its way through the weeds and things. It may not even survive. If it does, the next time we come back in four years, it’s probably only going to be this tall and we can treat it with herbicides again.”

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