DTE says it’s clear of Ground to Sky

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published March 5, 2019

METRO DETROIT — It was just over four years ago that DTE Energy’s Ground to Sky program was squashed under a mountain of complaints about what residents called reckless clear-cutting of trees in residential neighborhoods.

Now, the utility said it’s figured out how to do things the right way, according to Heather Rivard, the senior vice president of distribution operations for DTE.

“We’re communicating differently with residents. In large part, that was the problem before,” Rivard said.

In late 2014, homeowners along Kensington Road in Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township complained in droves to their municipal leaders, claiming DTE’s tree-trimming maintenance program, then called Ground to Sky, was removing massive numbers of trees from their property.

“They cleared 25 feet on either side of the power lines,” Bloomfield Township resident Inge Gray said in an interview in January 2015, just after she had joined other residents in a lawsuit against the utility for alleged damage to their property values. The case settled for an undisclosed amount.

“I’ve got a 50-foot-wide runway with no trees, no twigs, no bushes. Just a clear strip of mud that used to be a forest. I’ll never see my property the way it was,” she said at the time.

DTE publicly apologized and dumped the name Ground to Sky for the less controversial “tree trimming” program. It also has been working to ensure the complaints don’t return, Rivard said.

“We have a four-part process now,” she explained. “First, we sit down with local city officials and tell them where we’re going to be doing trimming and why we’re doing the trimming. We do that a month or two before we start being present in any way in the area.”

After having a conversation with staff from the utility, Bloomfield Hills City Manager David Hendrickson said, the city posted a notice on its website to explain that DTE workers would be in neighborhoods in the coming months for routine trimming.

“As you know, our city is full of large heritage trees that can get in the way of power lines and therefore need to be trimmed for safety and service reasons,” Hendrickson said in an email. “In talking with DTE over the last (few) years, it seems that their contractors are more aware of our expectations in preserving trees that need trimming.”

That’s definitely part of the plan now, Rivard said. After phase one, where DTE and municipalities meet to discuss the needed work, the utility sends out representatives to go door to door and explain what they need to do and when they plan to do it.

“We leave a door hanger if they don’t answer the door, and it has the name of a person, not an 800 number, so the resident can talk to a person about the job. It says ‘Call me, this is my cellphone, and I can explain to you or come back and meet with you,’” she said.

The third phase is trimming a tree. If a tree in some way needs to be removed for DTE’s power service to be adequately delivered, the contractor will present the homeowner with a permit to remove the tree. The tree won’t be taken out until the homeowner signs off.

And sometimes, the trees just do need to come out. Nick Assendelft, the public information officer for the Michigan Public Service Commission and the Michigan Agency for Energy, said they’ve charged DTE with improving electric service reliability, and that can mean removing the vegetation that could possibly fall on power lines and interrupt service.

“Trees or limbs that break during severe weather can bring down power lines, and (that is) one of the leading causes of power outages. The MPSC works with utilities to improve reliability and resiliency of the electric power grid to lessen impacts on customers,” Assendelft said in an email.

He said that utilities are not required by the MPSC to communicate with residents or obtain permission to trim or remove trees that could interfere with power delivery or safety. That’s a DTE initiative. The commission’s role is to approve funding for tree trimming programs and review the success of that funding when it comes to rate increases.

Lastly, Rivard said, DTE plans to improve cleanup procedures after trimming is completed on private property. Larger logs will be stacked and cut firewood-style, in case the resident would like to keep the clippings. If not, the resident can just call DTE and the utility will haul it away.

That, of course, is in nonemergency situations only.

“When we’re out during a storm to get power restored, we’re really just trying to move on to the next outage,” she said. “We can’t really clean up debris during the storm process.”

So, where will DTE be trimming next? Maps of its current maintenance plan can be found on the utility’s website and at municipal offices. This spring, there’s not a lot of work planned for Birmingham, but there’s a bit slated for the southwest corner of Bloomfield Hills, and lots of spot tree trimming in Bloomfield Township, near Long Lake and Adams roads, and Long Lake and Waddles roads.

That’s finishing off a five-year cycle of planned maintenance. A new plan will be put into place after that to target areas with reliability issues that weren’t resolved during the first round of maintenance.

“I’ll put it this way,” Rivard said. “In some places, the 10-foot clearance isn’t enough. Now we’re looking to go back with a 15-foot clearance.”

For more information on DTE’s tree trimming program, visit dteenergy.com.