What's Current | American Transmission Co. - Part 6
Three central Wisconsin municipalities recently increased their tree populations with the help of grants from American Transmission Co.’s Community Planting Program. The program encourages and supports communities in planting trees and vegetation that enhance the local area without compromising the safety and reliability of the electric transmission system.
The Village of Kronenwetter planted 10 trees in its popular Sunset Park. The trees—a mix of greenspire linden, northern catalpa, prairie fire crabapple, starlite crabapple and hackberry—will enhance other planned improvements to the park. They also will provide shade during park events, promote wildlife habitat, and help educate residents about the value of trees and how to care for them.
The City of Marshfield, along with volunteers from the Marshfield Sunrise Rotary Club, planted almost 30 bare root trees near the Marshfield Fairgrounds. The city selected 15 different tree species, including northern red oak and white swamp oak. The trees will enhance aesthetics of the area, increase the diversity of Marshfield’s urban forest, and help create a calming effect to encourage lower traffic speeds in the busy area.
The City of Stevens Point planted 24 fruit trees next to Bukolt Park along the Wisconsin River. The land was recently purchased by the city and the North Central Conservancy Trust and will be part of the roughly 30-mile Green Circle Trail, a hiking and biking trail that loops through the Stevens Point area. Once mature, the trees—a mix of apples, pears, plums and cherries—will provide free fruit for local residents and wildlife. The city plans to use the remaining funding to purchase shade trees for its new Emerson Park, located between the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point and the city’s downtown area.
The Community Planting Program and its sister Pollinator Habitat Program are part of ATC’s Grow Smart® initiative, which advocates for and provides suggestions of low-growing, compatible vegetation that can be planted in transmission line rights-of-way. ATC has awarded nearly $500,000 to more than 265 communities and organizations since 2013.
ATC accepts applications from June 1 through Sept. 30. Award recipients are selected and notified by the end of the year. Awards for both programs range from $100 to $5,000. Additional information and program applications can be found at atc-GrowSmart.com.
Hiawatha National Forest and American Transmission Co. develop first-of-its-kind operating plan agreement
GLADSTONE, Mich., and PEWAUKEE, Wis. – The Hiawatha National Forest and American Transmission Co. have developed a first-of-its-kind operating plan between a utility and national forest since the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A) Forest Service adopted a new rule to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires on public land. The plan will protect public lands and improve the safety and reliability of the transmission system while also providing significant long-term cost savings for the public, the company, and the agency. ATC’s cost savings will ultimately be passed down to electric consumers through their local utility.
“The Forest Service has a responsibility to protect and care for Hiawatha National Forest. We also understand how critical electricity is for people in the Upper Peninsula,” said Emily Platt, Acting Hiawatha Forest Supervisor. “That’s why creating an efficient, effective operating plan was so important. We appreciate that ATC cared as much about helping to protect the forest as they do about maintaining a safe and reliable electric grid.”
Across the nation, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service works with utility companies to manage permits for corridors crossing public lands–a significant duty for the agency and the utility companies. ATC operates approximately 95 miles of electric transmission line corridor within the Hiawatha National Forest’s 895,000 acres (about the size of Rhode Island). The new operating plan enables the Hiawatha and ATC to uphold environmental responsibilities more efficiently and effectively, while further reducing the risk of wildfires.
Updating the existing operating plan required an environmental assessment as a part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The assessment was reviewed by several interagency partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others.
Clear expectations save time, add predictability
The new operating plan establishes clear expectations and coordination procedures for the next 30 years, defining the construction, maintenance and vegetation management activities ATC may perform; providing guidance and clarity for activities performed in sensitive areas and establishing a new communication framework between ATC and the Hiawatha.
“The Hiawatha National Forest staff has the enormous responsibility of managing nearly one million acres of protected forest and is understandably cautious about any work conducted within it,” said Jared Winters, director of ATC asset maintenance and commissioning. “At the same time, ATC has a duty and responsibility to ensure safe and reliable electric service to the homes and businesses that count on it every day.”
A critical component of the innovative operating plan is a time-saving geographic information system (GIS)-based communication process. The detailed GIS structure:
- Guarantees the exchange of key information relevant to all of ATC’s annual work in the Hiawatha utility corridor, simplifying implementation of most routine maintenance.
- Identifies sensitive areas within the utility corridor; the company will establish operations and maintenance design criteria, with the agency assuming a post-hoc review role. Under this new structure, ATC will prepare a year-end report so that the effectiveness of design criteria can be reviewed and refined on an on-going basis.
- Establishes clear reporting and response dates, which help ensure electricity is delivered to customers safely and reliably.
Together, the components of the operating plan protect natural resources while simplifying interactions and eliminating unnecessary maintenance delays.
“We hope to use this streamlined operating framework as a model for other utility permits we manage here on the Hiawatha,” said Platt.
A new solution drives cooperation
Dense vegetation, rough terrain, protected species restrictions and a lack of accessibility are just some of the challenges in maintaining the rights-of-way in the Forest. In 2019, ATC approached the Forest Service with another solution–one that hadn’t been used in the Hiawatha before–using an aerial power saw suspended from a helicopter to side trim vegetation. Discussions about the use of aerial saws contributed to the cooperative approach between ATC and Forest staff to update the operating plan.
Wide transmission corridors reduce fire risk
Vegetation that grows too close to high-voltage transmission wires can cause a dangerous situation. Electricity can arc from the wires to a tree branch, igniting a fire or causing an outage. Dense, incompatible vegetation in the transmission line rights-of-way also can hinder access for crews and equipment needed to inspect, maintain, and make repairs to the poles and wires.
While the Hiawatha is not the most fire-prone of the 155 Forest Service units, it is still susceptible to fire. The new operating plan gives ATC the ability to clear rights-of-way to a width of 120 feet. ATC also will follow the same brush disposal methods that the Forest does, which help further reduce fire risk.
An added benefit of clearing the transmission corridors is that it promotes the growth of native grasses, low-growing shrubs and other native ground cover that bees, birds, butterflies, deer, and small animals prefer. Roughly 40% of the 10,000 miles of rights-of-way ATC manages has already been identified as suitable pollinator habitat.
Hiawatha National Forest is one of three National Forests within ATC’s service territory; others include the 1.5 million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin and the 990,000-acre Ottawa National Forest in the western section of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point offers the only professional utility vegetation management certificate program in North America thanks, in part, to the vegetation management team at American Transmission Co.
The Utility Arborist Association and Utility Vegetation Management Association developed the Utility Vegetation Management Certificate Program in 2014. The certification includes a college-level training program for middle managers and leaders in utility vegetation management and an industry-recognized professional credential. The program was initially piloted at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology before transitioning to UWSP in early 2020.
ATC’s vegetation management team has supported University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point’s Forestry Department for five years, teaching an annual weeklong utility vegetation management course and serving on the UWSP Forestry Advisory Committee for four years.
ATC’s involvement has brought greater awareness of the career opportunities available in vegetation management, leading the UWSP College of Natural Resources, Forestry Education and Development Initiative to offer the Utility Vegetation Management Professional Development Program certificate.
“ATC’s vegetation management team played a huge role in our decision to offer this certificate,” said Dr. Les Werner, professor and director of the Wisconsin Forestry Center at UWSP. “They made the UWSP faculty see the opportunities for students to have a rewarding career in utility vegetation management. Without that introduction, we would probably have taken on the certificate, but we would have been at a disadvantage of what it would take to implement it.”
Demand for vegetation management drove need for certificate
While job growth in the arboricultural industry is expected to increase by 7% over the next five years, the opportunities in utility vegetation management are currently limitless. There are three main reasons for this demand – changes in FERC/NERC regulations impacting management of vegetation on transmission line rights-of-ways, regional challenges such as emerging tree pests like the emerald ash borer and managing within fire- prone areas, and the public’s decreasing tolerance for power interruptions.
“We’re very excited about the utility vegetation management certificate,” said Philip Charlton, president, Utility Arborist Association. “The certificate will better prepare people to be managers and help distinguish them from their peers. We also wanted to give tree workers an opportunity to have a career path to move out of the tree and into management, even without a college degree.”
Comprehensive program provides needed skills and knowledge
The comprehensive training program is designed and facilitated by industry professionals, who provide the knowledge and skills needed to plan and manage sustainable utility vegetation management programs. The certificate is earned by completing six, 12-week courses that are project-based and 100% online. Participants range from tree workers to tree company executives.
Courses are designed to enhance the understanding and application of the industry’s best practices including safety, integrated vegetation management, environmental stewardship, and sustainability.
Completion of the certificate program is an avenue to being recognized by the industry as a Certified Utility Vegetation Management Professional by the UAA.
The intensive, two-year program was first offered by UWSP in April 2020 with 25 participants. There was so much interest that UWSP offered another course in May 2020 for an additional 25 participants. In September 2020, 50 people enrolled and 54 people enrolled in January 2021. The first UWSP class will graduate in early 2022.
Roughly 20 people were certified as part of the initial Southern Alberta Institute of Technology pilot.
At American Transmission Co., we are connecting people and communities with a sustainable energy future. Each year we publish an annual report to summarize highlights and provide a look into what we see for the future. This year we are combining our annual and environmental, social and governance reports into one summary document.
Our 2020 Report to the Community, available on our website, describes the industry’s rapid transition to a greater use of renewable energy resources and how we are working to connect the people and businesses in our service area with a sustainable energy future.
As a transmission company, we do not drive energy generation goals, but our system is the vital connection between renewable energy producers and electric consumers. As our service area continues to integrate more renewable sources – like wind and solar – we are working hard to ensure consumers receive that energy in a timely and reliable manner.
The report also describes our commitment to the environment, our communities, and protecting people and the electric grid during COVID-19. We care about the world we live in and strive to reduce the impact that construction, operation, and maintenance of our facilities has on the environment and pursue opportunities to promote sustainable, healthy ecosystems. We also care about the communities we serve and give back by donating our resources and time. We hope you’ll take the time to learn what we’ve been up to.
ATC recently installed more than 1,800 bird diverters by helicopter on the wires of five transmission lines in Columbia, Dane, Sauk, Waupaca and Waushara Counties.
Using a light-duty helicopter from Winco Powerline Services, ATC’s construction partner M.J. Electric, LLC installed the diverters to help keep birds safe. ATC uses two types of bird diverters – one is coil-shaped and the other features reflective tape that enhances visibility to birds at dawn and dusk. Both have proven effective in reducing bird collisions with shield wires.
“The diverters increase visibility of the wires and help protect birds from contacting the transmission lines while in flight,” said Michael Warwick, ATC senior environmental project manager. “Most of the diverters will be installed over or adjacent to wetlands and bodies of water to help protect larger, heavy-bodied species that do not maneuver easily such as geese, swans, pelicans, cranes and other waterfowl.”
Installing the diverters during the first week of March ensured the avoidance of most bird species’ nesting seasons. Bird diverters are just one of ATC’s avian protection measures.
Check out video of bird diverter installations at Hartman Creek State Park in Waupaca County, Wis.