Tree Butchers? TDOT â'Walks the Talk'

City Beat

KUB toes a fine line between preventing power outages and respecting property rights

Larry Silverstein is quick to clarify that he's not a tree-hugger. In fact, he's not opposed to cutting trees down entirely, if need be. But his voice still quickens when he recalls the sight of a Knoxville Utilities Board contractor â“butcheringâ” his next-door neighbor's 45-year-old maple tree last year, presumably to make way for nearby power linesâ"although, he notes, the base of the tree was 16 feet away from the street and its branches didn't appear to pose any immediate threat to the lines in question.

â“I tried to get them to stop,â” says Silverstein, a longtime resident of West Hills. â“I said, â‘Why are you doing this?,' and they said they were just doing their job.â” Since his neighbors weren't home to intervene, Silverstein called KUB himself, at which time he says he was told that there was no one available to speak with. A few phone calls later, the utilities board put him through to a KUB representative who arrived on the scene an hour later. By that time, though, Silverstein says the damage was already done. The maple tree had been cut in half.

â“What right do they have to do this?â” Silverstein asks. â“[KUB's] current philosophy is that trees are bad, and that we need to remove as many of them as possible if they're near a power line. And that's a terrible philosophy.â”

From KUB's perspective, however, the issue isn't quite as black and white as it may seem. Rather, it's a balancing act between providing reliable electric service and respecting the concerns of customers who are impacted by tree trimming.

Explains KUB Chief Operating Officer Bill Elmore, â“Just to put things in perspective, we've got about 5,000 miles of wire throughout our service territory. We've got almost 200,000 customers now, we cover a lot of territory, and a lot of it's heavily wooded. The average time a customer in our system is without power is 3.68 hours a year. Our goal by 2010 is to cut that down to 2.6 hours.â”

The leading cause of power outages is related to trees, Elmore says, and tree-related outages can be the hardest to identify and correct because they often involve physical damage to the lines. â“So to the extent that we can improve on tree-related outages and minimize those, it's going to have a big impact on customer reliability,â” he says.

KUB currently spends approximately $5 million per year on tree trimming alone, with more than 1,000 miles of its electric system being trimmed on a three- to four-year cycle. And Elmore says the tree-pruning program does take into account the health of the trees being trimmedâ"KUB even has a certified arborist and a professional forester on staff to make sure its tree-trimming practices are sound. Elmore notes that the Arbor Day Foundation has recognized KUB as a Tree Line utility since 2001, meaning it has consistently achieved a level of vegetation management deemed acceptable by the Foundation. KUB is the only one of the Tennessee's â“Big Fourâ” utilitiesâ"Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxvilleâ"that has received this designation.

In response to Silverstein's insistence that the trimming is excessive, Elmore says, â“We've never felt like we were trimming unnecessarily. The intent is to avoid an outage, keep the trees from getting into the wires. And strong winds and storms can move a lot of trees a lot closer to the wires than they appear to be on a still day.â” The goal is to maintain a 10-foot window of space between the tree and the power line. Sometimes, however, because the â“lateral pruning methodâ” used requires cutting branches at appropriate joints in the tree, for the health of the tree, a trimming can result in a wider window than required. And the results aren't always pretty.

Judging from appearances alone, it's easy to see how customers along power lines might be concerned that KUB isn't doing enough to meet their expectations with regard to aesthetics. As Silverstein puts it, â“They could care less what it looks like, whether the tree looks unbalanced or ugly.â” Elmore admits that there are situations in which the customers are warned in advance that their tree will look so bad post-trimming that the customer might as well have them cut it down altogether. And customers always have the option of hiring their own tree-trimming contractor, he says.

Over the past year, KUB has made several alterations to its tree-pruning program in response to the concerns of individuals like Silverstein. Now, official-looking letters, rather than postcards, are sent to customers to warn them in advance of trimming activity in their neighborhood; the KUB website now includes a Vegetation Management page with an interactive map to keep customers abreast of where and when tree-trimming is scheduled to occur; a recent customer newsletter included a segment focused KUB's vegetation management program; and three pilot programs were set in place to test improvements to the program, among other initiatives.

Tom Wolf, chairperson of the City of Knoxville's Tree Board, thinks the changes are a good thing. â“The ball has rolled rather fast for a utility of their size, and my perception is that KUB is doing what they can to make things better,â” he says. KUB is among 43 utility companies that his own business works for: â“We get exposed to a lot of them and their practices, and KUB doesn't rank down there at the bottom. They do care about trees.â”

Silverstein, however, remains unconvinced that the ends justify the means. And as the list of other concerned citizens and neighborhood associations he's assembled shows, he's not alone. â“I think it's basically a property rights issue,â” he says. â“It's called trespassing, and if somebody destroys my property, that's called vandalism.â”

â" Leslie Wylie

The state agency is encouraging alternative motor fuels

The quest to substitute biological derivatives for gasoline and diesel fuel is proceeding in full force in Tennessee, at the urging of Gov. Phil Bredesen. The governor's emphasis on developing the state into an alternative fuels production base has been underway more than a year, and the effort includes the establishment of more ethanol and biodiesel retailing operations.

On April 12, the state Department of Transportation received applications for 18 grants to assist in the installation or conversion of storage tanks and dispensing equipment at refueling outlets along interstate highways or major thoroughfares across the state.

Julie Oaks, a TDOT spokesperson, says the applications included proposals for either E85 ethanol or B20 biodiesel infrastructure, or both, from state retailers, nine of which are in East Tennessee.

The grants would supply up to 80 percent of the fitting or refitting cost, plus a portion of the costs for signage.

Oaks says the processing of the applications will take some time, but that TDOT is committed to making the so-called â“Green Islandâ” grants to assure that alternative fuels are available at 100-mile intervals along the interstates and high-use federal and state highways.

One application made last year under a prior, more limited program is still under consideration. Pilot Corp. applied then for E85 assistance for its Pilot Oil convenience store at 205 Walker Springs Road. Oaks says that application is in the final stages of negotiation. She says the department is not identifying applicants under the Green Island program until they are reviewed and granted.

Jonathan Overly, executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition and a long-time advocate of alternative fuels, is following the state's progress closely. He says the biofuels initiatives are â“OK as a demonstration,â” but he says that since both the 85 percent ethanol mixture that can be used in some newer cars and trucks and the 20 percent biodiesel mixture's â“bioâ” elements are â“food-crop based,â” there should be emphasis on other production sources and methods.

Corn and soybeans are among the rowcrops being reduced to ethanol for motor fuels. Brazil is one nation that has succeeded in getting nearly all of its motor vehicles powered by biofuels. There is no major technical barrier. GM is producing vehicles that run on E85, and ethanol has been the fuel of racing engines on some U.S. circuits since the 1960s.

â“As thankful as I am for what TDOT is doing, a lot more needs to be done,â” Overly says. He says he is hoping that a UT/ORNL study and pilot project to encourage the growth and utilization of switchgrass, a weed that grows quickly in very poor soils, will be successful in diverting ethanol production to a source that doesn't require the use of good agricultural land.

Overly concedes that â“the run-up in [petroleum-based] fuel prices in the last couple of months has increased the interestâ” in investing in alternative fuels.

But TDOT has been the leader in enabling such investment opportunities. â“It's using B20 in almost all of its diesel vehicles in East Tennessee, and it's moving to do so in Middle Tennessee.

â“In this case, TDOT's walking the talk,â” Overly says. Knox Area Transit is among public utilities using biodiesel extensively in the Knoxville area, as well.

Gov. Bredesen, in signing the executive order asking his various department heads to come up with a â“comprehensive state alternative fuels strategy,â” said the challenges of rising oil costs could become an opportunity for the state to â“promote cleaner air and better health for our citizens and create additional economic opportunities for Tennessee farmers.â”

He has scheduled his first Governor's Conference on Biofuels for May 30-June 1 at Montgomery Bell State Park in Dickson County to seek ways to â“make Tennessee a leader in the emerging bio-energy field.â”

â" Barry Henderson


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