For months, NStar fought with tree lovers in the leafy suburbs west of Boston over the utility company’s new policy of cutting down trees around high-voltage transmission lines, which carry power to tens of thousands of customers. When Hurricane Sandy barreled across the state Monday, NStar’s efforts appeared to pay off: Not a single transmission line fell.
But was the benefit of the tree clearing worth the cost to the suburban skyline?
Residents of the swath of area communities where the utility did its cutting aren’t so sure.
“My trees were never going to hit their lines unless somebody picked them up, got on a crane,” said Sudbury resident Ellen Sard. This summer, crews working for NStar chopped down 22 trees from an easement that the utility holds in her backyard. “It will always be a sore subject for some of us.”
Nearly 400,000 NStar customers lost power at some point over the course of the massive storm, according to the utility. At its height Monday night, more than 150,000 were without electricity. At noon on Friday, the utility said service was back to normal.
The storm took down numerous lower-voltage distribution wires across the state, but had transmission lines fallen, said a company spokesman, those outages could have been far worse. A broken distribution line might leave a neighborhood in the dark, but with a fallen transmission line, entire towns might lose power.
“We didn’t have any issues in transmission,” said Craig Hallstrom, NStar’s vice president of operations, at a news-media conference Tuesday. “Clearly, if you cut the trees back, you don’t have the risk of them falling in.”
But in some area communities, residents are still simmering over the utility’s aggressive approach, and maintain that a less drastic policy would have worked just as well.
“If you cut everything down, well, of course you take away the risk,” said Wayland resident Robert Noa, who had about 40 trees removed from his property by NStar, which holds an easement. “If they had continued to engage in the policy they had in place for the last half-century, which is topping trees and clearing them back to the point where they won’t be a threat — it’s just as effective.”
This summer, the utility cleared trees along transmission lines in Framingham, Natick, Sherborn, Sudbury and Wayland, and then began on a 17-mile stretch of high-voltage lines running between Southborough and West Roxbury.
Falling trees are the main cause of power failures, according to NStar officials, and it was the wooded communities along the Interstate 95 belt that suffered the most outages last week. On Tuesday afternoon, said Hallstrom, the utility still had about 50,000 customers in the state without power, and 30,000 of them were along the highway corridor.
In recent years, the utility has also stepped up its pruning efforts to protect the local distribution wires along neighborhood streets, a practice that the utility expects to continue.
“We’ve been ramping up our tree trimming for the past several years; we’ll continue to look at it,” said Hallstrom. “Again, it’s the number-one cause of outages, and that’s the mission, to keep the lights on, so we’re going to do what we can to do that.”
But even that effort has run into opposition.
This summer, Brookline saw a clash between NStar and residents upset over the utility’s request to remove 22 trees that had grown up and through lines in the Chestnut Hill section. A flood of written objections halted the effort. And while 49 other trees around town fell during Sandy, the contested trees remain standing, with no major limb loss.
“It sort of proves the point that we were making at Town Hall,” said Rob Utzschneider, who lives on Woodland Road and was among the residents who wrote to town officials in the effort to save the trees. “I always say to my wife and my kids, ‘Stop worrying about problems that don’t exist.’ We don’t have a problem with trees falling on power lines on Woodland Road.”
The utility does not usually cut down trees near distribution lines, but instead prunes adjacent branches, officials said. In the wake of the repeat outages during last fall’s two major storms, though, NStar began pruning more aggressively, increasing the minimum buffer zone around its lines.
Brookline had given NStar the OK to remove another tree, which had not yet been taken out when Sandy hit. It split during the storm, said Erin Gallentine, the town Parks and Open Space Division’s director.
“We do think that health, safety, and pruning is critical, but we don’t think that widespread removal or overaggressive pruning is always in the best interest of the community and not always necessary,” said Gallentine. “We work to find that balance.”Continued...