Trees an unfair culprit for power outages, but more can be done to prepare

Power outages and blackouts tied to late June thunderstorms in the Washington, DC, region have finally come to an end.

The raging storms – coupled with sweltering 100+ degree heat – left more than 2.5 million people without power. A handful of casualties were reported, with property damage spanning Maryland to West Virginia.

While the response of area utility providers has dominated the headlines, some have also cited the larger trees that knocked over power grids, blocked streets, and in some cases, damaged cars and homes. People have asked: are trees to blame for the loss of power? Could more have been done to protect people in their homes?

Trees are an unfair culprit. But there is a need for improvement in the pruning, management and care of urban trees, both in the DC region and throughout the country.

Due diligence is required to prepare urban trees for natural disasters, while recognizing that some damage cannot be anticipated. It is also critical to acknowledge the enormous benefits of trees to cities and towns.

One of those key benefits is the shading of homes, an area of increasing importance to utility providers like Entergy, which serves 2.8 million customers in Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. The shade from mature, well-placed trees reduces household energy use by as much as 30 percent, allowing companies like Entergy to meet peak demand during hot summer months. The shading effect saves customers on their monthly bills too.

Entergy is among the 145 utility providers currently recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation as a Tree Line USA in honor of its commitment to proper tree planting, pruning and care. The program provides a baseline standard for providers, but as with the Foundation’s other programs, we encourage participants to exceed the core requirements and continually seek best practices in their service areas.

More and more utilities are seeing proper tree pruning and care as both good business and common sense. Healthy urban trees help with storm water management and reduce strain on infrastructure. They also absorb the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. One utility executive described investment in trees to us as a risk management tool, akin to homeowners buying fire insurance for their house. This is especially pertinent as climate change leads to more volatile weather patterns,

It is because of these benefits that the Foundation advocates for preserving mature trees in conjunction with new development. These trees often yield the greatest benefits, in addition to their aesthetic and quality-of-life contributions. But they also pose risks. Many of the trees that fell during last month’s storm were older and strained by urban environments. We encourage municipalities and utilities to take extra care to maintain these trees and adopt established pruning cycles. And, when a tree becomes unsafe, it ought to be removed and replaced with native species that fit with the surrounding community.

While some disasters cannot be prevented, trees can and should be part of the solution rather than the problem. And they will be if they continue to receive the care and attention they deserve.