U.S. capital's arbor ardor unabated despite outage outrage

WASHINGTON Tue Jul 3, 2012 5:26pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Power utilities and regulators alike blame downed trees as the main culprit for power outages across the U.S. capital region this week, but the area's love affair with a green canopy shows no signs of abating.

Nearly a million people in the Washington area remained without power and baked in searing heat on Tuesday after a brief but violent windstorm known as a "derecho" hit the region Friday night.

Washington has a long history of tree lovers. It includes former presidents such as George Washington, despite the legendary story about him chopping down a cherry tree, and Thomas Jefferson, who ordered poplars planted on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol Building and the White House.

Arboreal fervor went into overdrive in the 1870s when Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, who served as Washington's leader, ordered the planting of 60,000 trees.

These days even as extreme storms in both summer and winter knock down trees contributing to power outages that last several days, residents say keeping large trees is a price worth paying.

Allen Ross, a photographer who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, said he's willing to live with large trees even though he's experienced lengthy storm-related power outages at least once a year since moving to his house in 2008. This time stifling heat from the lack of air-conditioning forced him to cancel an open house to show his home, which is for sale.

"We do have a pretty spectacular urban suburban canopy," said Ross, who hopes to move to another leafy community nearby. "It's the sacrifice that we have to make for having such a great canopy. I'm willing to live with the trees even if they knock power out, which they do."

TREES TAKE THE FALL FOR POWER WOES

Trees are certainly not the only cause of power outages and they are not the only reason why it takes the region so long to get power restored. After winter storms in 2010 caused outages, regulators ordered utility Pepco to strengthen its grid and undertake other changes expected to head off lengthy future outages.

Regulators will study the causes of this outage. But Paula Carmody, who represents consumers as the People's Counsel for Maryland, said utilities have long tried to make trees take the fall for the power woes. "The utility companies try to blame the victim and that just doesn't work."

In fact, Washington's percentage of trees is average compared to other cities, said Mark Buscaino, the executive director of Casey Trees, a non-profit group that restores and protects trees in the capital. Washington has canopy coverage of 35 percent, while Boston has 30 percent and Pittsburgh has 42, he said.

Still, Montgomery County in Maryland, Arlington County in Virginia and the capital city are all members of Tree City USA, which requires them to establish tree boards or departments run by professional foresters or aborists. That not only shows the region's passion for trees, but the interest has also sparked vigorous debates about the extent to which trees should be cut back from power lines.

If trees are a risk to power reliability, one solution could be to bury power lines. But that can cost $3 million to $12 million per mile, said Marcus Beal, a spokesman for Pepco. He said the company is considering burying lines in communities that have had the most problems with trees.

The costs of burying lines would be passed on to residents and businesses that pay the power bills, consumer groups said.

The debate about trees and power outages is sure to grow louder. Washington's Mayor Vincent Gray this year set a goal of expanding the city's canopy to 40 percent from 35 percent.

(Reporting By Timothy Gardner; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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