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Drought-Weakened Trees Blamed for December Outages

Drought-Weakened Trees Blamed for December Outages

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- To list of things being blamed on the drought, add the power outages during last December's snowstorm.

Two reports were released Tuesday on the outages that affected more than 100,000 PacifiCorp customers along the Wasatch Front. Some were without power for days.

Public outcry over the outages led the Utah Public Service Commission to open a formal fact-finding investigation into why PacifiCorp customers were affected more severely than surrounding municipalities, like Bountiful and Murray, which operate their own electric utilities.

Critics said PacifiCorp had failed to keep up with its tree-trimming program. The utility has promised to do better.

However, Matthew Wright, PacifiCorp's executive vice president for power delivery, said Tuesday that "If every single tree had been trimmed along the Wasatch Front in accordance with our specification, 80 percent of the outages would have happened anyway."

The report said that 80 percent of the outages were the direct result of "fast-growing, weak-wooded species, and more than 60 percent were caused by a single problematic species, Siberian elm."

A separate report was released by Florida-based Williams Consulting Inc., under the direction of the Utah Division of Public Utilities.

"A confluence of factors, including drought-weakened trees coupled with heavy, high-water content snow, caused widespread outages," the Williams report said.

Mike Rafferty, vice president of Williams, said the company's 6.4-year trim cycle contributed to the outages. PacifiCorp has said it should be on a three-year trim cycle and anticipates it will be on the first year of that cycle by 2005.

Rafferty also pointed to Utah Power -- the company taken over by PacifiCorp -- ranking in the bottom 25 percent of a 2002 national reliability survey.

He said PacifiCorp's equipment-related outages at 45 percent were much higher than the nationwide industry average of 25 percent.

"A catch-up maintenance program may be in order," said Rafferty, adding that the company's distribution maintenance spending per customer at $27.78 trailed the national average by more than $17.

The Williams report said that over the past decade, the number of Utah Power employees declined by nearly half while customer numbers increased 31 percent.

Rafferty questioned whether the company could adequately accomplish its maintenance work load with such reductions.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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