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MLGW chief links tree-trimming woes to power outages

by James Coleman, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

An annual shortfall in tree trimming is one of the key causes of widespread power outages that typically occur during weather events in Memphis, according to an update provided by Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division President and CEO Doug McGowen.

MLGW President
Doug McGowen

That was the message McGowen delivered to the Memphis City Council Tuesday (July 11).

After much discussion among council members and McGowen pointing out that the city has not met its tree-trimming goal since the 1990s, the council approved a five-year, $227 million appropriation to cover costs for tree-trimming.

Three trimming companies within the utilities’ service area will be given contracts. They do not affect current or planned funding to MLGW.

Some of the money will also go to hardening infrastructure.

“There is some urgency for us to get some tree-trimming done, as the number one cause of outages. We need to move forward with getting us back on the three-year cycle,” McGowen said.

The utility’s on-paper goal is to trim back trees and vegetation every three years.

However, it was a late June storm that once again brought the problem to the forefront. Over 120,000 customers suffered outages during the storm.

A day after, 71,000 remained without power. According to MLGW, it was the sixth-worse storm in the city’s history. And downed trees and limbs were the root cause of the disruptions.

“Forty percent of our outages are attributed to trees. This is just normal vegetation management. Recently, in the last few years, it’s been 60 percent …This (the stepped-up tree trimming) will be the first tangible thing you feel with improvements,” said McGowen.

The perpetual overgrowth began in the late 1990’s. Over the decades, the problem has grown exponentially. Had the utility maintained the scheduled pace, for example, the 120 circuit outages that occurred in 2020 could have been whittled down to 25, McGowen explained.

“We have not met the goal in tree-trimming in quite some time, in fact, since 1997,” said McGowen.

Even when maintained, Memphis’ abundance of trees, including towering oaks, provide plenty of ammunition for Mother Nature to take aim at vulnerable power lines.

During a typical rainstorm, it isn’t unusual to find large, fractured limbs splayed across yards or roadways.

And the problem is on track to grow worse.

MLGW sets a mark of 1,400 miles of trees to trim near “right of way” clearances annually. This includes lines near roadways and on rear lots.

“We have to trim that much to stay on the three-year cutting cycle,” said McGowen.

Only 5 percent of that goal has been met past this year’s midpoint.

Prior to the vote, a handful of citizens criticized the work of contractors previously awarded contracts and asked for a pause on the vote.

According to McGowen, 15 vendors responded when MLGW put out bids. Eight of those met the requirements. Three are being considered, including one holdover.

“This is not handing anybody any money until they actually perform the work. This is an authorization for us to spend money up to this limit. It is a little over $40 million a year. Once they execute the work, they get paid. And until they execute the work, they will not get paid,” said McGowen.

The annual cost will remain stable if the utility eventually meets its goals.

One council member cut the utility and its hired hands a little slack. He referenced a paid study conducted in 2019 that produced the cost estimates for tree trimming and infrastructure improvements.

“This was not done off the cuff…That’s where the derived number on cost estimates came, when we did the rate increase,” said Chase Carlisle. “We fell behind for two reasons, in my opinion. One was COVID-19 caused an issue getting crews out.”

He also blamed the “distraction and the time consumption” that came with looking at alternative power supplies during debate over whether to renew a contract with longtime power supplier TVA last year. MLGW is currently on a five-year rolling contract. 

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