Utility companies ordered to create tree-trimming plan - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Utility companies ordered to create tree-trimming plan

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Keion Saunders flips on every switch in every room like it's no big deal.

But six months ago, when the June 29 storm hit the region, he lost power for more than week.

"It was so hard," said Saunders, who lives in Charleston with his girlfriend. They moved into their house in South Hills a week before the derecho. "You're so used to flipping on the light switch and you can't really do that. We tried to keep food. We had just gone grocery shopping. We ended up losing a lot of it."

And more than 600,000 people felt his pain, prompting the West Virginia Public Service Commission to launch an investigation into what went wrong.

"They initiated a general investigation to ask what the utility companies in the state did in advance of the storm and what they can do better," said Susan Small, a spokesperson for the PSC.

Their findings? Companies should be doing more to prevent this type of destruction from happening in the first place.

So the PSC issued an order Wednesday: all companies need to revamp the way they trim trees and other vegetation that could fall on power lines.

"What this plan for tree trimming will do is make sure that reliability is better on an every day basis," said Jeri Matheney, a spokesperson for Appalachian Power, a unit of American Electric Power (AEP). "So a regular summer thunderstorm-- that won't knock out your power."

The time-based cycle to maintain rights-of-way would blanket all regions, as opposed to the method AEP uses now: taking preventative measures in the areas typically prone to outages.

So what does that mean for your electric bill?

Matheney said it's too soon to tell. The state's utility companies have six months to draft and submit a plan.

"We would have to ask the commission for any rate change, we haven't taken those steps yet," Matheney said.

But she added the company has yet to tack on surcharges from damages related to the derecho or Superstorm Sandy, which total nearly $100 million.

The last time AEP increased rates was 2011. Not only did this increase reflect the rising price of coal and fuel at the time, it shouldered costs from a snowstorm in 2009 that netted $18 million dollars in damages. Matheney said customers will shell out those costs, spread out over an eight-year period. She added that this increase is why customers would not be able to afford new hikes based on damages in 2012.

Based on recommendations for a similar program in 2010, an AEP official projected costs for a cycle-based program to average $2 dollars more per month. Matheney said she's heard estimates of even less.

Some said companies should cover these added tree-removal procedures in their maintenance fees. Matheney said two-thirds of an electric bill covers generation, while a third goes towards "distribution"--areas such as maintenance, select employees' salaries, etc. The average monthly bill ranges between $70 and $75.

"To me, it's about the morality of the issue," said Beth Hamrick, of Charleston. They could have taken preventative steps 20 years ago."

While others will do anything to keep the power on.

"With weather, you never know what's going to happen," Saunders said. "I'd be willing to pay extra."