and trees apart
Cuivre River Electric Cooperative strikes a balance between
improving reliability and keeping members happy
River Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Troy, has implemented
an ambitios program to cut brush and maintain the systems entire
4,500 miles of power line right of way.
Thats good looking
right of way, says Scott Skopec, sitting in his truck on a dusty
gravel road in Pike County.
Skopec points at a long row
of utility poles carrying a power line over the road and down a steep
ridge below, then across a field to a barn in the distance. The power
line passes between walls of thick forest and brushy undergrowth, but
for 15 feet on either side of the poles there are no trees, no brush,
nothing but grass and a few small sprigs growing in the right-of-way corridor.
Its neat and trim.
This is what were
doing all over the system, says Skopec, the person responsible for
seeing that crews cut trees and brush from beneath and around more than
4,500 miles of power line for Cuivre
River Electric Cooperative, based in Troy.
But what looks good to Skopec
doesnt necessarily look attractive to some of Cuivre Rivers
more than 44,000 members. Thats why Skopec often finds himself in
the hot seat explaining why the co-op spends so much money and time clearing
power line right of way that inevitably angers people.
Skopec says it simply comes
down to keeping the lights on.
Its tough to get
them to understand that one tree could affect two or three thousand other
people, says Skopec. They just see it as their tree and their
Often the culprit behind those
pesky blinking clocks on alarms and VCRs is simply a tree coming into
contact with a power line on windy days which can cause a breaker to momentarily
trip and shut off the power for a few seconds. But in severe weather trees
brought down by high winds, snow or ice wreak widespread damage to utility
distribution systems leaving hundreds or thousands of people without power
for days or even weeks.
Trees growing too close to
power lines also endanger the lives of children who climb them and cooperative
linemen who must work around thick vegetation and tree limbs to do their
jobs, says Skopec.
Skopec, Cuivre River right-of-way coordinator, spends a great deal
of his work day visting with members and explaining why trees must
be trimmed and sometimes removed from utitility right of way.
In another part of Cuivre Rivers
service area Skopec points out a power line that disappears into a wall
of vegetation. You cant even see the line or the poles,
says Skopec. This area has a lot of outages and you can see why.
Cuivre River Electric hired
Skopec two years ago to implement a new proactive right-of-way maintenance
program. In the past the co-op trimmed vegetation away from power lines
only when it caused problems like an outage, a system known as hot
spotting, or when a property owner requested it. Now the co-op contracts
with private companies that work year around clearing right of way.
Instead of just going
around hot spotting problem areas and having to come back year after year
to the same spots, were now offering our members a long-term solution,
says Rick Didion, Cuivre Rivers manager of engineering and operations.
The long-term solution is removing that problem tree and replacing
it with the right tree in the right place.
Cuivre River offers its members
a replacement if a tree must be removed from someones yard. The
right tree in the right place often means replacing large trees that grow
into power lines with smaller ornamental trees like redbuds and dogwoods
that cant reach electric lines or planting larger trees well back
from the utility right of way.
The idea, says Skopec, is to
spend a little money now to avoid spending a lot of money having to put
the co-ops power lines back up after a devastating storm. The process
never ends, says Skopec, who manages 15 crews of contractors. Currently,
Cuivre River spends nearly $2 million a year for right-of-way maintenance.
the job for two years, Skopec is playing catch up with right of way
maintenance in many areas where trimming was not done to protect power
Right now were
playing catch-up with our right-of-way maintenance, says Didion.
Once we get through the entire system the amount of money well
have to spend on maintenance will decrease dramatically. And were
already seeing improved system reliability.
In the meantime Skopec is on
the front lines of a campaign to educate Cuivre Rivers members about
the need to trim and remove trees and other vegetation from around power
lines. Sometimes its a tough sell.
People get upset now
because the co-op never had to cut their trees before. Well, youd
never done it before. Why are you wanting to do this now?
Skopec estimates he spends
80 percent of his time talking to co-op members explaining the importance
of right-of-way maintenance and educating people about the notion of the
right tree in the right place. One of his biggest headaches is working
with members who unintentionally, or occasionally intentionally, plant
trees directly beneath the co-ops power lines.
Skopec attempts to head off
unhappy cooperative members by passing out information about tree trimming
efforts to neighborhoods before the contactors arrive with the chain saws
and then meeting them face-to-face to explain the operation and offer
replacement trees where appropriate.
The majority of the people
understand it (the need to remove trees from the right of way) and even
the ones who argue about it, they understand, but they still dont
want it done, says Skopec.
They recognize that they
sometimes have a conflict between having a beautiful tree in their front
yard with a power line running through it and having reliable electric
service, says Didion. And to our surprise sometimes theyre
saying, Im willing to sacrifice some of the beauty of my house
to have reliable electricity so go ahead and remove that tree thats
works closely with his contractors to make sure they are trimming
trees and clearing rights of way using industry-wide practices.
This year two national organizations
recognized Skopec and his right-of-way program with awards. The Midwest
chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture, which includes
the states of Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Oklahoma, gave
Skopec an award of merit for his work in revamping Cuivre Rivers
right-of-way program including requiring contractors to no longer top
trees near power lines and instead using industry accepted pruning methods.
Topping trees is a common practice of severely cutting back a trees
limbs, an unhealthy way to prune that encourages disease and insects to
attack the tree.
Also Cuivre River is the first
electric cooperative in Missouri to be named a Tree Line USA Utility by
the National Arbor Day Foundation. The foundation, based in Nebraska,
implemented the Tree Line Utility program to recognize utilities that
work to properly trim trees as well as educate workers and the public
about the care and importance of urban trees.
As part of his public education
efforts Skopec and his staff spend time meeting with community groups
to explain their work and offer programs on keeping trees healthy at area
schools. The co-op also donates trees to schools to be planted by students.
Public education is one
of the most important parts of my job, says Skopec.
Cuivre River electric is not
alone among Missouri electric cooperatives that recognize proper right-of-way
maintenance is important to system reliability. A half a dozen other co-op
systems now employ professionally trained foresters or right-of-way superintendents
whose main responsibilities are keeping power lines clear.
River works a number of different right-of-way contractors that keep
more than 60 employees busy clearing trees and brush from beneath
the cooperatives power lines. It is a never ending job.
And most of the states
co-ops now belong to a state right-of-way association that works to spread
the latest industry information to all co-ops in Missouri.
Electric cooperatives are increasingly
finding that right-of-way maintenance can no longer be an afterthought.
It must be planned out and involve the members whose property is affected,
says Skopec. The process improves both system reliabity and involves the
members in the process. Its a way to strike a balance between the
two often competiting interests, says Didion.
Its a benefit to
have a professional who knows the proper way to trim a tree to protect
the health of the tree and to also strike a balance between the needs
of the property owner who wants trees on his land and the cooperatives
need to keep it out of the power line, says Didion.