After roughly 37,000 CPS Energy customers experienced sustained power outages during last week’s freeze CPS Energy said its future winterization efforts will include more tree trimming.

That’s because those power outages were not due to any systemwide or power plant failures, as occurred last February, said CPS Energy’s interim CEO Rudy Garza. Instead, high winds and ice accumulation, on tree branches that get heavy enough to touch power lines, or the lines themselves, caused virtually all the outages, he said.

While power was restored to many within a few hours, some residents on the North Side of San Antonio were out for up to 24 hours. Several told KSAT 12 they weren’t sure who was responsible for the trees near power lines that caused the power to go out.

During last Friday’s media briefing, Garza said he talked to his team about looking for efficiencies in operations in order to put more money into tree trimming in the coming year. He also said he’d spoken to city staff, about “the need to look for $3 [million] to $5 million” more than the utility has traditionally spent.

“That’s really how we’re going to get to … where trees are not going to impact us at a time like this,” he said.

For the past three years, CPS Energy’s tree trimming budget has been $7.1 million per year, wrote CPS Energy spokeswoman Dana Sotoodeh in response to questions from the San Antonio Report. She noted that this does not include emergency trimming during storms. The work is contracted out, she said.

In the utility’s fiscal year 2023 budget, which was approved last month by the board, the tree trimming budget was increased by $2.6 million to $9.7 million, as staff had already identified “vegetation management” as an area it wanted to beef up, Sotoodeh said, following the 3.85% rate increase, which passed in January.

CPS Energy also received favorable terms in a recent bond offering, which allowed the utility add an additional $3 million toward tree-trimming, she wrote in response to follow up questions from the San Antonio Report. This will bring the total budget for tree trimming to roughly $12.7 million.

In 2020, CPS Energy counted 1,433 tree-related outages that affected almost 50,000 customers, according to the tree trimming page on its website. The page is a mix of warnings to customers — “Never trim trees near electric lines!” — and information on how to request free trimming from the utility. The page also says, “At this time, our crews are only responding to emergency requests. For example, a limb or tree that has an obvious structural defect that is threatening a power line.”

In 2020 and 2021, CPS trimmed about 400 miles worth of trees per year, Sotoodeh wrote — the utility measures the work in miles rather than number of trees trimmed, which it does not keep track of. That doesn’t include emergency work or customer requests; for those, the utility completed an average of 6,300 jobs per year over the same time period, she wrote. 

To boost the efficiency of its program, Sotoodoh wrote, CPS Energy uses light detection and ranging or laser scanning, or LiDAR, technology to identify areas of denser canopy and vegetation encroachment.

Asked if the utility could have prevented some outages during last week’s freeze with more tree trimming prior to the event, Sotoodeh wrote that the utility’s “vegetation management program addresses the most commonly seen storm conditions in South Texas.”

“The winter weather last week caused trees that wouldn’t have been previously in contact with our power lines to be weighed down because of the ice,” she wrote. “Trees are one of the largest causes of outages for any utility. Severe weather certainly exacerbates the situation.”

Customers can be a challenge, too, with some refusing to have the service performed on trees on their property. To help, Sotoodeh wrote that CPS Energy is “actively working with our community to ensure they are educated about our practices, and are able to best support us.”

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

This article has been updated to accurately reflect the amount added to the FY 2023 tree trimming budget based on corrected information supplied by CPS Energy.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.