By Derrill Holly
There’s more than one way to look at vegetation management. The work electric cooperatives and their contractors do to help keep electric lines and other equipment separated from plant overgrowth plays a major role in service reliability.
From mowing and brush work at ground level to tree trimming near or above power lines, electric co-ops regularly inspect and manage the landscape in and around their equipment. Effective to prevent outages, minimize the threat of fire damage and maintain access and serviceability.
Utility providers, including electric cooperatives, have worked with local, state and federal foresters to develop integrated vegetation management practices aimed at reducing the need for chemicals, costly manual and mechanical control measures and controlled burning.
These techniques establish low-growing vegetation that out-compete taller-growing species, according to experts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA worked with utility industry associations and other federal agencies to develop Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) practices.
An IVM approach can help create sustainable ecosystems such as a meadow transition habitat. The techniques, used for both roadside and cross-country rights of way, encourage the growth of native plant species and increase plant diversity. They also create or restore habitat for local and migrating wildlife, including insects, birds and mammals.
“Trees and other vegetation grow relentlessly,” said Randall H. Miller, a vegetation management consultant, based in Des Moines, Iowa.
While weather conditions can affect seasonal activities related to right-of-way work and vegetation management, electric co-ops and other utilities regularly conduct maintenance to mitigate risks.
“Vegetation management that is deferred one year has to be done in the future, and the cost accrues much faster than inflation,” said Miller, who serves on the ROW Stewardship Council. “As biomass develops due to growth and trees encroach on, or even engulf power lines, they become increasingly more difficult and less safe to work.”
“Communication is indispensable to successful vegetation management programs,” said Miller. “Stakeholders need to understand how vegetation management will benefit them, and that includes education on how a vegetation management program minimizes the risk of tree-caused power outages.”
According to industry research, about 20% to 30% of all power outages are vegetation related. Removal of tall trees and limbs near power lines also reduces the risks of injuries to caused accidental contacts with energized power lines.
“It should include the concept of ‘right tree, right place’ and that there is no room for tall trees to develop under power lines,” said Miller.
“Planting them there means those trees cannot be allowed to reach their full potential and will have to be either removed or, if retained, continually pruned to keep the clear of the conductors,” Miller said.
Derrill Holly writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56% of the nation’s landscape.