Friday, January 7, 2011

Recommendations to FERC on FAC-003 Transmission Line Reliability Regulation

On Dec 27, 2010, Mark Hegerle of FERC wrote in an email:

The Commission’s chairman, Jon Wellinghoff, is very concerned about this issue [Transmission Line Vegetation Management practices resulting in the clear-cutting ROWs]. The October 26 technical conference was the first step in raising awareness of the issue, and we are currently considering how to proceed next. As you know, the Commission does not have the authority to mandate any particular form of vegetation management over another – that authority rests with the state and local authorities. Nevertheless, poor vegetation management practices are harmful to landowners, as you point out, and may not be the best method to protect reliability.

Staff is considering how best to advise the Chairman on what steps the Commission could or should take to address this issue. I hope to have a better response to your concern in the next few weeks.


Mark Hegerle
Director, Division of Compliance
Office of Electric Reliability
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

To which LORAX replied:

[The GEF LORAX Working Group wants] to comment upon the statement (in your email) that "the Commission does not have the authority to mandate any particular form of vegetation management over another – that authority rests with the state and local authorities."

We heard at the conference that the TVMP of each utility is reviewed and approved both at the state level and at the federal level (NERC). None of the TVMPs that I have reviewed call out clear-cutting as a preferred (or even applicable) approach to Row management. Nor does FAC-003-1 require or mention it. Thus there is a disconnect between approved methods and actual in-field methods applied by various utilities. Without on-going in-field review (monitoring by regulators at both state and federal levels), the main way TVMP performance evaluation has occurred has been by the cries and complaints of landowners who have experienced (or are threatened with) clear cutting implementations.

We have heard expert testimony at the conference from Dave Morrell of the NYSPSC that he believes the clear-cutting choice has been made by utilities not as on the basis of cost savings, but rather as a means to avoid FERC compliance fines. The discussion of changing FERC/NERC fine structures so as to clearly handle the difference in risk profiles of a Clearance 1 vs. a Clearance 2 infraction is key to stopping the recourse to clear-cut. Having a tree grow into an arbitrary Clearance 1 zone (which is based upon the utilities' own TVMP cycle definition) is clearly different than growing into the flash-over zone or having an actual line touch! (The spark-over Clearance 2 is science-based with IEEE provided tables giving required distances, unlike the arbitrary Clearance 1 value which is never provided in any formal specification.)

We also heard mention of advanced techniques such as LIDAR scanning of transmission corridors so that complete 3D mapping of vegetation can occur, allowing computerized analysis and detection of "problem areas". With such technology allowing the early and easy detection of infractions into Clearance 1 zones, the actual Clearance 1 distance established by a utility could be modified to be more "lenient". There would be a highly targeted TVM response to any such specifically detected incursions (not a broad-brush clearing of the entire ROW). This would also most likely result in significant annual TVM cost savings for the utilities.

Lack of environmental analysis and remediation is a major weak link in the current regulations. At both the state and federal levels, TVMP is considered to be a "maintenance" operation and thus is excused from any environmental quality review processes (unlike new line construction). However, actual in-field reports demonstrate that there are widespread and serious environmental, health, and property value impacts for landowners - both along and nearby the ROW - resulting from current TVMP practices. The basic FAC-003 regulations should emphasize environmental stewardship in conjunction with reliability: the "model TVMP" as outlined therein must include a requirement for planned and effective remediation for all TVM actions.

Finally, as discussed at the conference, the utilities' reliance on IVM - Integrated Vegetation Management - (as outlined in ANSI A300 Section 7) needs to be seriously questioned. The scientific findings relied upon by the IVM spec (based upon years-old studies in limited regions of the US) appears to be at odds with current studies reported by researchers in Pennsylvania and New York: in controlled studies of forest and woodland clear-cutting, natural regeneration of native species no longer occurs due to excessive deer herbivory. Deer populations are explosively rising in the Northeast and the expansion of deer-friendly feeding territory caused by clear cutting the ROWs will directly result in greater expansion of populations. Only non-native invasives will repopulate the ROW lands, unlike the IVM model of a naturally generated native ecosystem espoused by the utilities. Unfortunately, reliance on IVM methods including repeated manual herbicide applications will not provide a viable foundation for desired ecosystem recovery. Active mitigation / restoration will be required. (Again, this will require oversight monitoring...)


To summarize, changes to FERC/NERC fine structure and fine infraction types (esp. regarding Clearance 1) could be undertaken directly under existing regulation without requiring further legislative action. Such changes - and the reasons for them - should be clearly communicated to all state PSCs/PUCs as well as to the utilities themselves, along with a request to review and modify their current practices in light of these changes.

This needs to be coupled with enhanced federal In-field monitoring / inspections - as proven by events/complaints over the last couple of years, FERC/NERC cannot rely solely upon state public utility commissions to perform this oversight. The core issue is whether or not approved TVMPs are being followed "to the letter" of FAC-003-1 or are greater (more excessive) VM actions being undertaken unnecessarily? If so, these should be stopped with the threat of significant (new) FERC/NERC fines for non-compliance to regulations.

General TVM guidelines (similar to the technical advisory guidelines developed to accompany FAC-003-2 draft) should immediately be issued covering the recommended use of LIDAR techniques in TVM, as well as expanding the emphasis on use of the modified WZ/BZ (wire zone/ border zone) management approach which allows vegetative buffers to coexist along ROW edges and outer margins (allowed vegetation height based upon distance from centerlines of the transmission towers in conjunction with terrain, topography, species and climate/bio-zone.) In addition, the problems of relying upon IVM as defined by ANSI A300 Section 7 should be emphasized. A scientifically sound, updated approach to ecosystem restoration after TVM operations needs to be made part of any TVMP approval/review - and should be part of the FAC-003-2 draft.

FERC must also emphasize the need the need for effective and agreed-upon (with landowner) environmental remediation, planned at the outset and required to be part of any TVMP. Again, this is striking a balance between reliability and environmental concerns that should not require legislative action, but simply a re-emphasis within FAC-003 regulations and enforced via the TVMP review process.

These final points imply another significant change which FERC could undertake immediately: the regulatory specification process (as embodied by the current FAC-003-2 draft update) should be broadened to include the landowner's perspective within the creation/review/approval process. Allowing landowner input and feedback could only strengthen the resulting specifications.

Thank-you for including me in this discussion. I and my LORAX fellows (copied hereon) are available for further discussion, analysis and review.


Mark Gilliland
GEF LORAX Working Group, chairperson


Download a PDF of our formal follow-up submission to the FERC.

As you will read, there are a handful of issues which relate to the NYS PSC's current review of its Transmission Vegetation Management guidelines (Case 10-E-0155) - and which will require the PSC to work "upwards" (to the FERC / NERC levels) to help resolve. Without such clarification and resolution at the federal level, TVMP regulatory issues may not be resolved at the state or local utility level.

Two major issues to watch out for:

1) The fine structures in place for FACA-003 compliance are interpreted by utilities to require elimination of all vegetation in the ROW (both wire zone & border zone) so as to avoid clearance zone incursion penalties. However, this "incursion zone" (Clearance 1) is not strictly defined in FAC-003 (unlike Clearance 2 spark-over safety zone values) and thus is left up to the discretion of each utility. The result in NYS and elsewhere at a national level has been extensive clear-cutting along the ROWs.

2) The current circulated draft of FAC-001-2 (and update to the existing federal reliability regulation under development by NERC) defines an explicit vegetation height restriction in the border zone. This 25' height restriction would force removal of many view buffers (for example) while simultaneously disallowing any modernized approach to vegetation management (such as the "tiered" wire zone-border zone methodology).


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