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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Government

Trimming Trees: MLGW’s Ambitious Plan to Curb Power Outages

The $228 million plan is part of a larger electricity distribution upgrade that comes with a controversial rate hike

Workers for ABC Tree Service trimmed branches earlier this fall near power lines along Titus Road. (Ariel Cobbert)

The sun shines in a blue sky accompanied by a menagerie of sound coming from one Titus Road backyard: The roar and buzz of a chainsaw, crew members yelling above the cacophony, branches being cut from large trees and falling into the greenery below.

“It’s really dangerous,” Moises Martinez says on this bright autumn morning as he monitors crew members dangling from the taut, orange ropes high above.

“If it’s cold, the worst part is the climbing, because they have to go all the way up on the rope, and it’s hard when it’s in the snow. The rope is completely wet with ice and when they’re going up, your hands are completely full of ice. It’s the worst.”

Martinez works for ABC Tree Service, one of three contractors that Memphis Light, Gas & Water is paying to address a yearslong backlog of untrimmed trees threatening to cut power lines in the next big storm.

Clearing power lines has become a higher priority for city-owned MLGW. Normally, this work is done in three-year cycles, but the pandemic, severe storms and contractors failing to meet expectations have left some areas uncleared for six or seven years. As a result, tree-related power outages are four times higher than normal, according to MLGW. About 60 percent of MLGW power outages are caused by trees.

In response, MLGW has developed a five-year plan to catch up on long-neglected tree trimming across Shelby County – part of larger, multimillion-dollar initiative to improve the reliability and resilience of the utility’s aging electrical distribution system.

But it hasn’t come without controversy.

Funding for the larger initiative includes a 12 percent electricity rate hike approved by City Council on Tuesday. Critics say many customers can’t afford the increase (four percent spread over three years), but MLGW officials say it is a sound investment. It will raise $178 million in new revenue that, coupled with upcoming bond sales, will finance a range of improvements, including replacing substation transformers, circuit breakers and wooden poles, and modernizing the power grid.

The utility’s “Electric Reliability and Resilience Road Map” calls for increasing spending from $100 million to $228 million over five years to trim tree limbs out of the path of power lines.

Power line interference from trees and deficiencies in the larger electricity distribution system have been compounded in recent years by severe weather.

More severe storms have led to more severe outages. In January 2020, 38,000 MLGW customers lost power due to a severe ice storm. The following June, 120,000 of MLGW’s 450,000 customers lost power in severe thunderstorms.

The storms keep coming. From January 2022 to August 2023, more than 800,000 outages were reported due to major storms, according to MLGW. That’s the same number of outages caused by major storms in the entire preceding 10 years.

“I think we had a record number of storms this year and last year,” said MLGW foreman Michael Pike. “When a storm happens, we all have to stop cycle trimming and enter storm mode.

A worker hauls away a freshly cut branch along Titus Road. (Ariel Cobbert)

“That puts a damper on us getting our cycle-trimming done.”

Every storm sets back regular tree trimming at least a week or two, if not longer. Ice storms generally cause longer delays and less patience for the problem. The sights of cars weaving around fallen trees and power lines limp on the ground make headlines, and more headaches for MLGW, which faced public criticism for slow response time to the outages.

“If we don’t trim the trees, an ice storm affects us a lot more. We’ve had trees coming over power lines, ice gets on them, and it hits a line.” Pike said.

To address the backlog, MLGW plans to pay $228 million to three companies to clear the lines over the next five years: ABC Tree Service, Lewis Tree Service and Kendall Vegetation Service. That will nearly double the number of limb-clearing crews from 52 to more than 90, according to MLGW.

Over the past decade, MLGW has trimmed about 8,200 of the 14,000 miles of trees along its lines. According to the utility, it fell behind when a previous contractor failed to meet expectations. MLGW completed just 40 percent of its tree-trimming goal in 2021, and just 30 percent in 2022, records show.

With the added crews, MLGW plans to trim another 7,000 miles of trees by 2025.

So far, they appear to be on track.

According to MLGW’s online tree-trimming dashboard, the three contractors collectively had cleared 346 miles of tree limbs through Dec. 4. That means that in the just completed first quarter (September, October, November) of the work year that started Sept. 1, the crews had completed nearly a fourth – 24.7% – of the utility’s 1,398-mile first-year goal.

The new pace should allow the utility to eventually return to its three-year cycle of tree trimming.

Still, not everyone is happy with the plan. At least one critic contends MLGW is overpaying for tree trimming. Others question whether the proposed rate hike is necessary.

“There is no need for a residential rate increase,” Dr. Ray Bauer, co-founder of the energy consumer advocacy group 21st Century Memphis or Bust!, told council members Tuesday.

The rate hike is expected to cost the typical power customer an extra $5 per month or $60 a year. City Council Chairman Martavius Jones said at Tuesday’s meeting that the cost seems worth it considering that ratepayers often must throw away spoiled food at considerable cost following power outages. MLGW President and CEO Doug McGowen said the investment is long overdue, saying the utility has had a “run to fail” mindset.

“We have had essentially one rate increase in 35 years, and the rate of inflation over that period of time has significantly outstripped that,” McGowen said in a hallway outside the City Council meeting Tuesday.

“And so what we’re suffering from reliability-wise is a lack of investment over time, over decades and decades and decades of time. And so that’s what we’re attempting to rectify here, is to put the capital into the system, modernize our electric grid, to improve both resilience and reliability so that we have a system that our customers, quite frankly, deserve.”

Later, during the council meeting, McGowen addressed the higher cost of tree trimming in Memphis.

“The reason it’s high is it hasn’t been done in years,” he said. “There is so much to haul off.”

Meantime, tree-trimming crews are pushing forward.

The Titus Road area south of the University of Memphis’s Park Avenue Campus is one of several work sites where ABC Tree Service has been removing large branches that have grown over, near and within power lines. In some places, the foliage entwines with the lines, endangering the power supply.

It’s a challenge that inspires Martinez, who has worked for ABC for nine years.

Salvador Garcia hauls away some trimmed tree branches. (Ariel Cobbert)

“I started like everyone, as a ground person,” he said. “Pulling out brush and watching what the other guys are doing. They are teaching me, taking me to the next level and then doing certification. You are learning how to start a chainsaw, how to pull brush, how to chip brush on the street.” 

Ground work is only half the job. The other half? More hazardous rope work.

“The first thing, you have to select a main branch, a safe branch where you can place your rope,” Martinez said. Once the rope is secured, a secondary line is thrown, a saddle is added, and the worker can pull himself into the tree.

The rope workers sit in saddles and work closely with a partner  below to ensure their safety. With two workers in the trees, there are four to five on the ground, some clearing brush and others guiding the ones above.

“Sometimes, one climber can make three (trees) a day. Sometimes, we can put two climbers on one tree, and they didn’t make it in one day. It all depends on the tree,” Martinez said.


 

Written By

Morgan “Jake” Lankford is a journalism graduate student at the University of Memphis, where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism. He has written for the UofM student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, and hosts a show for The ROAR internet radio station here.

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