This is the time of year trees are most appreciated. Streets and parks fill with walkers, joggers, and bicyclists enjoying the transformation from brown to green. Students gather outside their schools to plant saplings. Budding branches everywhere invigorate our senses and lift our souls.
Utilitarian entities like power companies, also, should love trees. Cities and towns become heat islands in the summers. Urban temperatures are considerably higher than surrounding suburbs, caused by the thousands of rooftops, jam-packed along miles of streets, interspersed with acres of parking lots, all absorbing the heat of the sun.
By cooling the air beneath them, urban trees reduce the need for air conditioning. One study by Department of Energy experts concluded that mature shade trees and light-colored surfaces, which reflect the sun's rays, could cut air-conditioning costs nearly 20 percent in cities and towns.
So why do power companies like Peco Energy spend tens of millions of dollars annually hacking the centers out of trees under their electric wires, disfiguring their shape and lowering their efficiency? As power companies tell it, the trees are in the wrong place. Tree limbs touching or falling on electrical wires are dangerous and cause outages, which are especially common during storms. Therefore, trees should never be planted under power lines unless they're so short they can't reach the wires.
But towering, spreading trees - three stories or more - are by far the best way to shade streets and buildings, lowering ambient temperatures. Perhaps it's the power lines - not the trees - that are in the wrong place.
Shade trees are needed in the public right-of-way because that's where people travel and congregate every day. That's where the asphalt is otherwise baking in the summer sun. Other utilities, like water, sewer, and gas pipes, share the same right-of-way, but they don't conflict with trees and people because they're buried. Electric lines should be buried as well. In fact, Peco and other power companies already bury wires in select downtown areas and routinely do so in new suburban development. But it's much cheaper for utilities in the short run to keep wires in the air, even though they require thousands of unsightly wooden poles and mutilate our vistas.
Besides eliminating a major form of visual blight, placing power lines underground will protect them from the elements. Last year, after a particularly severe storm caused $600 million in power outages in Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed new fees to harden the state's electric grid against future storms.
In Pennsylvania, a recent law authorizes utilities to charge customers an extra fee to cover the costs of repairing and upgrading their infrastructure. The law, inspired primarily by a 2011 fatal gas explosion in Allentown, was designed to encourage gas companies to replace steel and iron gas pipes with safer plastic ones. But the law applies to power companies as well, and Allentown's PPL Electric Utilities is already working on a plan to upgrade its lines with the added revenue. Peco can do the same.
Even in cases where burying electric wires is deemed too expensive, a compromise solution is a "tree cable," a system of bundling insulated electric wires on utility poles so trees can co-exist with them. Bundled wiring requires far less clearance from tree limbs, so branches can grow up and around power lines (as well as the phone and cable wires below them), screening all the wires from view. Bundled wiring is not only aesthetically better, it's also safer. In addition, bundling reduces costly tree pruning because insulated power wires are less likely to short circuit in storms and high winds.
Aerial wires hanging over our streets have been around so long we think they're a necessary part of the landscape. They aren't. We should either bury them or screen them with life-giving trees.