Friday, May 6, 2011

FERC Actions regarding Transmission Vegetation Management

A letter of inquiry sent today to the FERC re: Transmission Vegetation Management:

Dear Commissioners;

I am writing this as part of the GEF LORAX Working Group's ongoing follow-up to the Transmission Reliability Conference of last October 26, 2010 organized by Mr. Hegerle and staff.

As of this time, it appears that FERC staff have concluded that FERC does not have specific congressional regulatory authority to prescriptively define vegetation management practices beyond the statement of reliability-related clearance measures in FAC-003-1 (and as modified in FAC-003-2 r5 which is pending final approval).

This still leaves open and unresolved serious issues brought to the fore by landowners and Congressional representatives concerning clear-cutting along the ROW with the associated negative environmental, health and property value impacts. WIth the impact of global warming including stronger storms and extreme temperatures, the need to ensure electrical system reliability is even more apparent than ever. However, there is an growing nationwide awareness that methodological changes must be found by which to reduce the impacts of transmission line vegetation management practices (TVMPs) such as the current wide-spread reliance on clear cutting across the ROW; to find solutions that maintain visual and noise buffers, create less impact on property values, ensure air quality, reduce extensive flooding and erosion, slow the spread of invasive plants and animals, and engage in ecosystem/habitat restoration to help ensure species preservation (such as our song bird, amphibian, and butterfly populations).

What actions has FERC taken to date as a result of the Technical Conference?

The FERC web site has recently been updated to "better educate" the public (landowners) that the federal government (FERC) can not regulate TVMPs at the level of granularity which would allow exclusion of clear-cutting practices. Rather, the web site and associated FAQ clearly points out that the state PUCs / PSCs are responsible for management and oversight of utility's TVMPs. This information in now prominent on the FERC web site and on the downloadable TVM FAQ. But is this sufficient?

The goal here seems to be to deflect public outcry from FERC back to the state level. However, the pervasive motivation ("excuse") of NERC fine avoidance given for extreme clear-cutting by the Transmission Operators (TOs) has not been adequately addressed by FERC/NERC yet. Historical NERC fine data for the last couple of years shows a very small percentage of tree contact or R1/R2 incursion violations in the overall mix of fines. So something does not add up!

The Commission is reportedly planning to reach out to state regulators and TOs to let them know that clear-cutting is not a preferred or required method of TVM to meet Federal standards. What this outreach will consist of and how vigorous this attempt at industry "reeducation" might be is not clear yet. But time is of the essence as ROW clear-cutting continues nationwide.

Landowners and concerned groups such as LORAX need to better understand the position that FERC will be taking in this matter. If stronger guidelines are not possible based upon current congressional authorization, if NERC fine structures can not be made less onerous for simple safety zone incursions, if the industry and state regulators will not listen to the urgent need to balance their TVM methodologies so as to better reflect public (ratepayer) demands, then a robust grass roots effort to address this issue at both the Federal (additional Congressional legislation) and state levels (public utility commission guidelines) is our only recourse as concerned citizens. This would be a long and tenuous process.

As LORAX has pointed out to our own state regulatory body (NYS Public Service Commission) in PSC Case 10-E-0155, a major issue that is often avoided in this discussion concerns network reliability, capacity, equipment age, operator training, software reliability and inter-operator communications. As seen in the Joint US/Canada Report on the 2003 East Coast blackout, all of these factors conspired to make the grid system much less robust and unstable such that a couple of random tree contacts in Ohio could become significant factors in the cascade of human and machine failures leading to the breakdown of overall electric grid system integration and massive blackout.

Thus, the underlying issues are far greater than the current focus on TVMPs. Unfortunately, the issue of system reliability is a much larger problem requiring designing / upgrading the overall grid (newer more modern equipment, greater capacity in lines which run over existing ROWs, digital monitoring, simulation and "Smart Grid" technologies, and enhanced scenerio-based operator training). Again, a long term process.

Related to our call for use of new technology and systems, LORAX has also pointed out that current clear-cutting practices are actually a costly "solution" for a problem that could be best handled through the use of LIDAR, regular scans of transmission corridors, GIS-based computer modeling, and a "just in time" approach to spot vegetation management. ("Best" here means a less costly methodology which would also significantly reduce or eliminate the various negative impacts of current practices.) Such methodologies could be implemented in a relatively short period of time by each utility and TVMPs could be quickly updated and approved based upon such changes. Thus, LORAX believes that the option of this approach should be more widely disseminated by FERC through the utility industry and state regulatory framework.

We hope to continue our dialog with FERC so as to help ensure that these issues will be addressed to the satisfaction of all.


Mark Gilliland
GEF LORAX Working Group, chair

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