Right to Save

Posted: August 1, 2020, 12:00 am

Maintenance program buoys Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s service and finances

Work truck working on trees near some wires
Asplundh contractors discuss a tree-cutting project with Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s right-of-way supervisor Tim Granger.

Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) makes every effort to reduce outages and operational costs to provide great, affordable service to its nearly 26,000 member accounts.

Some of those efforts include technological investments that increase the strength of the grid or expedite outage response. Others — like a strong right-of-way maintenance program — rely more simply on manpower, experience, and sawblades.

WEC’s robust right of way maintenance program curtails outages from one of the primary causes: trees and tree limbs, says Tim Granger, WEC’s right-of-way supervisor. The cooperative contracts with two companies, Asplundh and Providence Tree Service, to trim vegetation along the roughly 3,000 miles of distribution lines WEC maintains.

“If you’re keeping stuff from growing in the lines, you won’t have as many outages — especially when storms come,” Granger says.

Keeping trees and tree limbs away from so many utility poles and lines, though, takes careful planning and management.

Cutting-edge Coordination

WEC uses a four-year cycle in its right-of-way management program for a variety of reasons, Granger says.

A Providence Tree Service employee trims trees underneath some power lines in southern Houston County.

Longer cycles allow trees and limbs to grow into larger obstacles, which inherently pose a bigger threat to the power grid. Additionally, a shorter cycle allows contractors to more accurately gauge their costs and what they will charge the cooperative.

WEC bases the cutting cycles and patterns on its 15 substations, meaning crews typically tackle four substations and the connected infrastructure each year, Granger says. The cooperative also contracts with a crew that handles spot projects where issues arise in between cycles.

In addition to cutting limbs and trees that are too close to lines, some contract crews mow underneath power lines to prevent trees from growing into the lines. They also spray herbicide in some areas to further stunt potential growth.

While establishing the cycles takes some coordination, Granger also notifies WEC members about any projects that may impact their property. This allows him to explain what the crews will be doing, when they plan to complete the maintenance project and address any concerns members have.

“It’s our right of way, but it’s still their property,” he says. “It’s all about serving the members, the owners of the cooperative.”

Regional Outage Reductions

A Providence Tree Service employee mows underneath some of Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s power lines.

PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, a power provider for WEC and 19 other utilities, also coordinates right of way maintenance with property owners, says Brett Mack, PowerSouth’s transmission operations and maintenance services supervisor. PowerSouth delivers power to its member cooperatives through 2,300 miles of transmission lines in Alabama and Florida.

Like WEC’s maintenance program for distribution lines, PowerSouth also implements spraying, side trim, and mowing efforts for the transmission lines. The scale differs, though — WEC maintains a 30-foot right of way, while PowerSouth’s rights of way cover larger distances due to the size of the infrastructure needed for transmission lines.

Additionally, PowerSouth’s transmission lines cover larger areas since the cooperative’s service territory stretches from north-central Alabama to the Gulf Coast. Because of these factors, Power- South implements a robust right of way maintenance program.

“In storm response, we have a lot of ground to cover,” Mack says. “The program is beneficial. It protects our system and keeps our outages low.”

To address the unique challenges of maintaining transmission lines, Power- South has added a different tool in rights of way management in recent years: con-
tract helicopter pilots. In this approach, pilots fly well above the tree line. A saw dangles from the helicopter, and the pilot guides the helicopter to meticulously trim limbs away from the lines.

The aerial program continues to gain “more momentum” for a couple of reasons, Mack says.

“Speed is a major issue on side trim projects,” he says. “A helicopter can clip limbs and go. You don’t have to skip areas due to swamps, where cutting from a bucket truck can be slow and dangerous. If you’re skipping areas, it exposes your lines to more risk.”

PowerSouth also employs a certified arborist, Scotty Moseley, and three field technicians who oversee maintenance projects to bolster its clearing program.

A Common Goal

While right-of-way maintenance presents WEC some upfront costs, the cooperative gains a return in improved service to its members and in reduced outage responses.

Tim Granger, WEC’s right of way supervisor, highlights a problem area in northern Houston County.

“This program protects the investment in poles, lines, transformers, and other materials that we have already made with the money our members have entrusted to us,” says Brad Kimbro, WEC chief operating officer. “The program allows us to deliver an increasingly better and more cost-efficient product. This also reduces overtime, which means our linemen can enjoy time with their families and spend it out of harm’s way.”

And those are factors Providence Tree Service owner Randy McManaway embraces. While Granger ensures all right of way crews perform the maintenance tasks thoroughly and completely, McManaway notes his crews remain committed to serving WEC’s members and employees.

“We hold to a pretty high standard,” he says. “We try to alleviate the response time for the linemen.”

Likewise it’s a team effort for WEC and PowerSouth to ensure all of WEC’s members receive uninterrupted service.

“Our program is paying off, as we know outages are reduced or avoided altogether because of our right of way program,” Kimbro says. “Our efforts, along with PowerSouth’s on the transmission side, help to ensure the power is always flowing for our valued members.”

Reasons Right of Way Maintenance Matters

  1. An Asplundh crew member tosses a tree limb to the ground while working along WEC’s right of way in northern Houston County.

    Reducing outages — Many outages are caused by limbs and branches coming in contact with, or falling on, power lines. By having a strong right-of-way maintenance program, WEC keeps trees and vegetation trimmed and maintained, lowering the number of outages and outage time.

  2. Safety — Having an effective right of way program keeps cooperative members and employees safe. Electric power lines carry thousands of volts of electricity. A tree touching a line can become energized, which is extremely dangerous or even deadly.
  3. Reducing costs — Not maintaining a clear right of way increases the chances of a limb or tree falling on utility infrastructure. When that happens, electric lines, power poles, and transformers are damaged, requiring more supply purchases. Also, damage that occurs after hours leads to overtime pay for employees. A robust maintenance program eliminates most of these extra costs.
  4. Providing a strong, reliable system — As an electric cooperative, it is WEC’s goal to provide the strongest and most reliable system it can for its members. Members need to know that when they flip the light switch, their lights will come on. By having a regular right-of-way maintenance program, WEC provides its members with the most reliable system possible.