Trees in the right-of-way make dangerous shade.
Vegetation management crew clears brush a safe distance away from power lines to ensure reliable system performance and to reduce potential safety hazards. Photo by Patti Rogers/Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC)
A tree and a power line met one day on a golf course. Typically, this story does not end well, but for Forrest Brock, the hypothetical situation serves as a lifesaving learning opportunity.
As manager of transmission and distribution services for Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC), Brock oversees 3,700 miles of high-voltage transmission line. As Brock tells it, that day on the golf course, a WFEC lineman found himself talking with the golf manager who was none too happy about the utility’s need to remove a tree.
The lineman pointed to the scalded leaves near the top—a sure sign the tree was growing dangerously close to the energized line—and then he mentioned how golfers might enjoy seeking shade beneath it. Brock says when the manager heard that he turned to the lineman and told him, “Do what you need to do.”
For Brock and others responsible for keeping the power flowing and the public safe, what they need to do isn’t always an easy sell.
After a storm, the memories of trees wrapped in hot wires are short-lived in the minds of consumers. Often property owners don’t understand why their electric co-op is messing with their trees or even coming onto their property in the first place. As housing developments sprawl into rural areas, the problem worsens. Developers keen on selling lots tend to skim over easement details, and eager buyers don’t pay much attention.
“Many times they don’t realize what it means to have an easement on their property,” Brock says. “They don’t know who is responsible for what after a storm or even why emergency access is necessary. It goes a lot further than just vegetation management.”
To avoid frustration, Brock urges landowners to visit the county clerk’s office, request their abstract, and carefully read the easement agreement. Furthermore, they should understand that an easement is a legally binding contract that grants the easement holder certain rights to access their property, maintain the right-of-way, and make repairs. Property owners may be surprised to discover multiple easements—pipelines, sewer and water, railroad and telephone—crossing their land and none of them are the same.
Disparity often exists within the same industry. Electric co-op easements may vary depending on the size of the service, terrain, and other factors. WFEC transmission right-of-way may vary from 50 feet to 100 feet wide, depending on the voltage level. Typically, distribution co-ops adhere to the minimum requirements set by the American Public Power Association and the National Electrical Safety Code—15 feet on either side of the pole for three-phase line and 10 feet on either side for single-phase line.
Vegetation clearance—a hotly contested topic for homeowners who often fail to consider tree growth rates—varies from 11 to 13 feet for transmission lines. For distribution lines, the Occupational Safety Hazard Association recommends a clearance of at least 10 feet.
Equally contentious for property owners are restrictions on what they can and can’t do in the right-of-way. Most transmission easements prevent landowners from planting anything in the right-of-way; however, Brock says WFEC would consider low growing trees and shrubs if homeowners will consult with them in advance.
To prevent electricity from arcing from power lines onto nearby structures, outbuildings, sheds, and gazebos are a no-no in the easement. Same goes for hay bales, hunting blinds, swing sets, trampolines, flatbed trailers, and the next-door neighbor’s fifth wheel. Obstructions in the right-of-way are a serious public safety hazard, Brock emphasizes, not to mention a hindrance to crews and equipment forced to navigate to make repairs.
There’s another reason for WFEC’s no-nonsense approach: In 2003, a hot day and heavy power use in Ohio caused transmission lines to sag into a tree limb, triggering the worst blackout in U.S. history. The event prompted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to direct the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to develop strict reliability standards for transmission lines that, among other details, laid down rules for vegetation clearance, right-of-way maintenance, and inspections. Violators pay the consequences: up to $1 million per day per violation.
“Those regulations were put in place to protect the reliability of the nationwide electric grid,” Brock notes. “We’d rather be the bad guy for removing a tree than risk getting fined, or even much worse, someone getting injured or killed.”
Distribution co-ops that buy power from WFEC and deliver it to their members at lower voltages don’t fall under federal regulations, but they do face a judge and jury of another sort—their members. When co-op members disapprove of co-op policies, they deliver their message at the ballot box by voting for trustees who will better represent them. When it comes to managing vegetation in the right-of-way, however, members must weigh the consequences.
Growth rates, weather, rainfall, and the sheer enormity of co-op service territories make it impossible to maintain the right-of-way like a lawn care crew.
At Indian Electric Cooperative in Cleveland, Oklahoma, Right-of-way Supervisor Jamie Garrison aims to clear and spray 2,000 miles of right-of-way in four years, or 500 miles per year. Since kicking off an aggressive vegetation management program in 1996, the co-op has reduced tree-related outages by nearly 60 percent. Still, handling member expectations can be a juggling act, he admits.
“People don’t understand why we can’t come in and trim 6 inches and then come back in six months and do it again,” Garrison says. “Our service area is simply too big. It would cost a fortune.”
At Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC) in Norman, Oklahoma, the $3.9 million budget for right-of-way maintenance is their biggest operations expense. “If there were a more economical way, I’m sure we’d do it,” says Joe Torres, OEC manager of vegetation.
Burying lines seems like a good solution, but at a minimum of $52,000 per mile of distribution line, it’s not cheap. Furthermore, the process of trenching and burying lines in some neighborhoods could damage established trees.
“People think there are other solutions, but we do it this way for good reasons,” Torres says. “Our mission is to provide safe and reliable power in the most cost-effective way. If we have to keep doing it over and over, it doesn’t get any cheaper.”
For questions or more information about right-of-way efforts, contact your local electric cooperative.