Successful power-outage prevention program facing cuts despite recent N.B. blackouts

An N.B. Power worker cuts trees off a line outside Grand Bay-Westfield. N.B. Power began aggressively removing trees from around its power lines in 2014 to prevent outages and improve reliability. The program has been successful but the utility wants to scale it back next year to bolster net earnings. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
An N.B. Power worker cuts trees off a line outside Grand Bay-Westfield. N.B. Power began aggressively removing trees from around its power lines in 2014 to prevent outages and improve reliability. The program has been successful but the utility wants to scale it back next year to bolster net earnings. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)

Two damaging storms in the last four months that knocked out electricity to nearly 100,000 N.B. Power customers each time may be giving the utility second thoughts about cuts it has planned for a tree trimming program along power lines that has been helping to reduce outages in severe weather.

According to N.B. Power spokesperson Marc Belliveau, a decision to cut spending on the outage prevention program is not necessarily final.

"The vegetation program is constantly under review and can change depending on storms," Belliveau wrote in an email.

"The numbers for next year are estimates, but also are subject to change depending on needs."

Catherine Allard/Radio Canada
Catherine Allard/Radio Canada

In a budget that takes effect this April, pending a review by the New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board, N.B. Power has proposed to temporarily cut what it spends on tree trimming and other vegetation controls along power lines to help fund a single-year boost in its bottom line.

It is a "one-time reduction to vegetation management spending in 2023-24 to help offset other budget pressures," according to the utility in evidence filed with the utilities board.

N.B. Power has applied to the regulator for an 8.9 per cent rate increase to take effect April 1.

If granted, that will generate an extra $135.8 million in revenue for the utility, but N.B. Power says it will still post a loss for the year without reductions in spending as well, including a $2.5 million (19 per cent) cut in its outage-preventing tree cutting program.

The cuts are planned despite the program being credited by N.B. Power with effectively reducing the size, duration and severity of outages during major storms since funding was first expanded in 2014.

That was the year post-tropical storm Arthur blew through New Brunswick, knocking out electricity to more than 200,000 N.B. Power customers, some for more than a week.

NB Power
NB Power

Trees hitting power lines caused many of the blackouts, triggering a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort by N.B. Power to "widen" distances between trees and power lines over an area covering more than 6,000 kilometres.

The preventative tree cutting appeared to help.

Over the last three full fiscal years, ending in March 2022, N.B. Power has spent an average of $4.7 million per year restoring outages following storms. That's less than one third the average of $17.5 million per year spent during the six years before that.

According to N.B. Power it is an improvement directly linked to the tree trimming program.

"The wider distribution line right-of-ways N.B. Power has implemented are having a large impact on the number of reduced outages during significant weather events," the utility said in its evidence to the utilities board. 

That has raised questions among multiple participants in N.B. Power's upcoming rate hearing about why it would cut a successful program if it has saved it money and helped prevent outages.

"What confidence does N.B. Power have that a reduction in distribution vegetation management spending will not otherwise affect reliability, particularly during storms," asked J.D. Irving Ltd. in a series of pre-hearing written questions to the utility about the proposal.

Nicolas Steinbach/Radio-Canada
Nicolas Steinbach/Radio-Canada

The reduction "is believed to be of limited risk" according to N.B. Power's response, although the move "could" negatively affect the frequency and duration of outages in the future, it acknowledged.

N.B. Power did note in its evidence that the budget that includes cuts to preventative tree trimming was prepared last June, before two major storms, including post-tropical storm Fiona in September and a pre-Christmas gale in December, showed tree-related outages still pose a risk.

Belliveau said N.B. Power is limited in what more it can say given the matter is before the Energy and Utilities Board, but will be able to "go into detail on what has been presented" during full public hearings.

Those are scheduled for seven days beginning Feb. 23.