“Plan Before You Plant” to Maintain Safe Spaces Between Power Lines and Trees

Planning before planting orchards can minimize losses due to removals later on and also avoid safety and fire hazards (all photos courtesy PG&E.)

As a nut grower, every tree you plant is an act of faith and a considerable investment in your future. You toil endlessly in your orchard, arm yourself with the latest information and carefully plan to protect your crop and secure your livelihood.

Before you plant new trees, you’ll eliminate the risk of tree removal by a utility crew and probably rest easier at night, too, by planning before you plant to avoid conflicts with high voltage power lines. PG&E works with growers to prevent hazards that lead to property loss and perhaps loss of life.

As a utility provider, our most important responsibility is ensuring public safety and a reliable supply of power by maintaining safety clearances between trees (and other vegetation) and our high-voltage power lines.

Each year, PG&E is required to inspect all transmission lines carrying 200 kilovolts (kV) and above. Our inspections are audited, and we will be fined if we fall short of complying with required standards for vegetation clearance.


Vigilant Monitoring

For all of those reasons, we vigilantly monitor our transmission lines for potential hazards using ground patrols as well as aerial remote sensing.

We continue to ask orchard growers to plan before planting and to contact us early. Working together, we can prevent potential injuries and tree removal by maintaining safe distances between trees and high-voltage power lines.

We’ll respond to your request quickly. Within a few days, we’ll pull the land rights, generate property maps and mark any incompatible planting regions in your orchard with pin flags. That frees you to plant, and plan, with confidence for the long haul.

PG&E also offers a Mature Orchard Incentive Program for Transmission Lines, which encourages orchard growers to remove their own nut-bearing trees under transmission lines. Growers can use the incentive to replant crops that are compatible with electric transmission lines or reinvest the funds according to their needs.


Planning Prevents Problems

Now that the current growing season is winding down, you may be considering new plantings for next season. Whether you’re thinking of making an orchard exchange or replacing mature trees with new ones, now is the ideal time to get the go-ahead from PG&E early in the planning process. You may even learn that you can safely plant your entire parcel.

Your call or email could save you thousands of dollars in lost revenues by preventing tree removal down the line. Not only that, it could save lives and prevent widespread power outages that disrupt businesses and essential medical and emergency operations in your community or far beyond.

In 2003, for example, sagging power lines contacted untrimmed trees in Ohio and caused a massive cascading outage, costing the states millions and leaving entire cities without power throughout parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, and the Canadian province of Ontario.

A few years later, in a California orchard, a fast-growing walnut tree grounded to a high-voltage power line, causing power loss on a slightly smaller scale. And there are many similar scenarios – most of them preventable.

While we’re constantly working to get our “plan before you plant” message out, it continues to go unheeded by some. That’s especially disheartening when it leads to needless injuries and fatalities to workers, owners and their families. Even a child passing by can shake a tree and cause contact with power wires.

Growers have different reasons for not contacting PG&E. Some are independent-minded business owners who are fundamentally opposed to outside interference, no matter their potential personal risk or the benefit to others.

Some growers question that their young trees could ever interfere with power lines that soar 40 or 50 feet, especially when their tree varieties are designed to top out at 20 or 25 feet. But plantings routinely exceed their expected growth rate and height. In fact, we’ve seen trees that grew 12 feet in a single growing season.

Others who fail to notify us genuinely misunderstand the nature of our easement on their property. They may believe the electric easement right-of-way for vegetation applies only to our wires in the air, when it actually extends across a grower’s physical property.

It’s also human nature to hope for the best or to think “it can’t happen to me.” In fact, one of the state’s largest nut producers learned through trial and error that power lines and orchard trees don’t mix. Today, he contacts us regularly before planting.


Trees and High-voltage Lines

Trees can interfere with safe and reliable service in many ways. Most tree issues are caused by tall-growing varieties planted too closely to power lines or directly under them. As branches grow, they often extend beyond clearance limits, too.

Keep in mind that power lines are also dynamic and affected by the elements. Extreme heat and cold or severe weather events can create a variety of problems.

Metal transmission conductors expand in hot conditions, causing wires to sag. Wind and ice storms can also wreak havoc, loosening normally taut wires and causing branches or trees to fall into electrical lines.

It’s vital to remember that the electrical voltage flowing through our transmission lines is many times more powerful than that carried by the usual neighborhood power lines. And its unintended effects are that much more dangerous and unpredictable.

Plantings near high-voltage power lines pose fire and electrical hazards to people on the ground, whether they’re touching the power line or simply standing near the tree. For example, lightning strikes can create a voltage surge, causing an electrical arc that travels to nearby objects like trees, vegetation and people.

When a tree does come into actual contact with a power line, or when a worker or child climbs or shakes that tree, the potential risk to lives and property is very real. And the results are often unimaginable.

Every orchard is vital to the economic health of our state. And we understand that growers need to maximize yields and plant every possible acre. But no grower wants to think that their time and investment was wasted because their tree was located too close to the power line.

Contact PG&E at 1-800-743-5000 or email us at planbeforeplanting@pge.com early in your orchard planning process. We’ll help you identify power-line friendly planting locations that avoid transmission lines – and prevent unwanted tree removal. And that’s a good thing for all of us.

Plantings near high-voltage power lines pose fire and electrical hazards to people on the ground.