American Electric Power and FirstEnergy officials need to trim trees near their power lines more often, according to the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.
Last summer, a massive storm with sustained 70 mph winds left thousands of West Virginia residents without power for varied lengths of time. Some Wetzel County customers of Mon Power, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy, were stuck in the dark for roughly two weeks because of the catastrophic damage.
To prevent similar problems in West Virginia's future, the commission ruled Wednesday that electric companies must develop plans for "comprehensive vegetation trimming" that should be followed on a regular cycle. The exact time tables for trimming are yet to be determined, but state officials want to see specific proposals from the electric companies by July.
In the Northern Panhandle, residents of Ohio and Marshall counties receive electricity from AEP. Those in Hancock, Brooke, Wetzel and Tyler counties get service from FirstEnergy's Mon Power. Todd Meyers, spokesman for Mon Power, said his company already spends about $30 million per year to trim trees in West Virginia.
"The number one culprit for outages is trees," he said. "We view this decision by the commission as a positive, which will give us a chance to improve upon what we already do."
Meyers said FirstEnergy officials try to trim trees in more heavily populated areas every three years, while trimming those in more rural areas every six years. He said a new plan for more trimming could cost more money, which FirstEnergy may try to recover in the form of a rate increase for customers.
"We are too early in this to know how much the increase - if there is an increase - would be," Meyers emphasized.
According to the commission's order, electric companies must submit proposals for how they plan to recover the costs of the new tree trimming plans, while the commission reserves the right to approve or deny such proposals.
"This was a very severe event. Sustained winds like that are very unusual," Meyers added of the June and July storms.
AEP spokeswoman Jeri Matheny said her company views the ruling as a "positive step to help improve reliability for our customers."
"We believe in cycle-based trimming," she said, though noting she was not sure Wednesday of the company's proposed time frame for cutting.
"If there is an increase in cost, it is far too early to say how much we would ask for," she added when asked about a possible rate increase for customers.