Govt plan blasted by lines industry

Proposed changes to regulations for trees around power lines have been blasted by the lines industry, saying they go nowhere near far enough to solving a problem which is costing the sector nearly $60 million a year.

Energy Minister Simeon Brown announced last weekend the government will make it easier for lines firms to take action to remove vegetation from obstructing local powerlines.

The change will ensure greater security of electricity supply in local communities, particularly during severe weather events.

“Trees or parts of trees falling on power lines is one of our most common causes of electricity outages — particularly in high winds,” Mr Brown said.

“During Cyclone Gabrielle, out-of-zone tree outages interrupted electricity supply to 67,000 households. These interruptions and outages underscored how important it is to proactively manage risks to local electricity infrastructure. Many of the outages experienced during the cyclone could have been prevented if these proposed regulations were in place.”

Amendments to the Electricity (Hazards from Trees) Regulations 2003 will target trees directly surrounding existing growth limit zones by creating a “clear to the sky” zone to prevent vegetation hanging over lines. The regulations will also create a “notice zone” of one metre around the growth limit zone.

Electricity Networks Aotearoa chief executive Tracey Kai. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Electricity Networks Aotearoa chief executive Tracey Kai. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

But the Electricity Networks Aotearoa chief executive Tracey Kai said this change would have done little to stop the loss of power during Cyclone Gabrielle.

She said, when contacted, the proposed changes fell well short of protecting power lines from trees.

"While it’s positive to see some progress on tree regulations, the ‘clear to the sky’ and ‘notice zone’ amendments are only a tiny step towards protecting power lines from trees. If this change in regulation had been in place before Cyclone Gabrielle, it’s questionable as to whether it would have made a material difference to the 67,000 customers who lost power due to trees", she said.

"These interruptions were largely caused by ‘fall zone’ trees, which would not be addressed by the proposed ‘clear to sky’ changes."

She was looking forward to further consultation, which Mr Brown said will take place later this year.

"As part of that, we hope to see more progressive, fit-for-purpose solutions to manage trees and improve electricity resilience for consumers and network infrastructure.

"We’ve been calling for changes to tree regulations for over a decade. ENA and our members are doing our best to be patient while we wait for changes to ... the regulations which are now 20 years old. The regulations need to better reflect the operating environment of 2024, and beyond, so we can keep the lights on.

"Last year, lines companies spent over $58 million on vegetation management including pruning and felling trees that obstructed lines and infrastructure. This cost is making electricity more expensive for consumers.

"The longer we delay preventative measures to manage trees, the more it will increase the cost and time of recovery when the next event happens.

PowerNet has the second largest lines network in the country, much of it around Southland.

It said last year it spent about $2 million annually on vegetation control.

A PowerNet spokesman said it spent a significant amount every year on vegetation management to provide safe, efficient and reliable power to communities.

"While it’s positive to see some progress on tree regulations, the ‘clear to the sky’ amendment is a small step towards protecting powerlines from trees", the spokesman said.

"From what has been released over the weekend, it appears electricity distribution businesses concerns about bearing a significant cost to manage private vegetation, remains unaddressed."

Aurora Energy chief executive Richard Fletcher said further details were needed about the changes and then the company would review them.