You May Have Heard About Wildlife Mitigation Methods,
But Do You Know the Whole Story?
Wildlife Mitigation and Climate Change
So, What Is Wildlife Mitigation?
Then What Is Wildlife Mitigation as It Relates to Power Reliability?
But What Does Wildlife Have to Do with Power Reliability?
Why Does Wildlife Matter?
Wildlife and Electrical Generation
Wildlife Mitigation in Regard to Power Reliability
Wildlife Mitigation Methods in Regard to Power Line Placement
What Are Wildlife Mitigation Approaches to Power Line Placement?
Wildlife Mitigation as It Relates to Power Reliability Conclusion
Power is ubiquitous. It’s expected and it’s necessary. Necessary for business, necessary for households, and necessary for society to function.
So, when the power goes out… well obviously there are a lot of subsequent issues.
First, power outages cost money. The cost of addressing the issue and bringing power back online varies depending on the situation, the region, and the labor, but it always adds up to an unnecessary cost for the utility.
Second, consumers (residential customers and commercial businesses) can incur major expenses and can lose potential revenue when power is lost.
From a residential customer perspective, the loss of electrical power can be problematic because most heating systems, water pumps, heaters, communications equipment (phone and internet), and air conditioning systems are controlled by electrical components – so when power is lost, these important systems also go down. If the residential customer has health issues, this can be life threatening.
For the commercial/industrial customer, the lost revenue from the downtime they experience may not be recovered when the power is restored. In addition, a sudden power loss can damage critical equipment, which takes time and money to repair before bringing those systems back online.
It’s not just revenue for power companies or government fines here – utilities and their business customers have potentially large financial impacts due to the lost revenue during and immediately after unscheduled outages.
Finally, while there are several events that can cause a power outage, advancements in technology and system hardening mean that many of the outages that happen today are related to either wildlife or nature interference.
It’s estimated that at least 70% of outages are environmentally driven. Advances in sensor technology are starting to shed even more light on the topic but we know that these wildlife-caused outages are often fatal to wildlife (not to mention unnecessary). When these animals, often birds, are electrocuted they are either killed instantly or seriously injured and unable to survive.
Government regulations do address some of this; however, the changes to our environment, particularly regarding continuous development, have strained even the best intentions.
With such a vast collection of potential problems, it is no wonder that the electrical power generation industry strives to provide uninterrupted, reliable power.
Resilient power is reliable power – and wildlife mitigation is a major requirement when providing reliable power.
Climate change is driving the need for more renewable sources of electricity as electricity replaces fossil fuels in cars, homes, and industries. And while the commitment to carbon-neutral practices is vital, the logistics of such a feat are worth discussing.
First, the placement of these renewable wind and solar farms are often located in areas far away from present grid infrastructure. And although creating this clean energy is essential, being able to access it is equally critical.
This means expanding the electrical grid – aka tying the new generation sources into the current transmission grid. And how do you connect the systems you ask? Well, with additional transmission line of course. Seems simple, but again let’s look at the logistics.
Let’s follow the “logic” in the “logistics” here. For the past 100+ years, power generation stations could be located anywhere because the fuel needed to generate the electricity was delivered to the plant (coal, natural gas, etc.). When more power was needed, the generation station could expand or be upgraded without the need for any new transmission lines. However, generation using renewable fuel sources have changed this dynamic. These new site locations need to be where the best “fuel” is located (wind, solar, water, etc.). These sites may or may not be located close to the current grid. In fact, every new site will require an additional transmission line to connect to the grid. Finally, the optimal site location for a wind or solar farm is often in environmentally sensitive and isolated areas – making the need for effective wildlife mitigation plans even more crucial.
Additionally, many of our current transmission structures and distribution structures are aging and in need of upgrades in order to meet our present reliability expectations.
In some cases, structures are more than 100 years old. Not only is the technology frequently outdated, but often wildlife utilizes these structures in their ecosystem. Birds use poles for nesting as well as for perching and hunting – a potentially dangerous act when the conditions are right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) that can harm or kill the animal as well as cause an unnecessary power outage.
Wildlife mitigation efforts are also imperative in these types of scenarios.
Wildlife mitigation is the act of eliminating, or reducing the severity of, negative impacts to wildlife.
Wildlife mitigation as it relates to power reliability is the act of improving the reliability of our power grid through the act of eliminating, or reducing the severity of, negative impacts to wildlife.
Wildlife events are the root cause of many power outages today. And while there are variables involved, it is estimated that at least 70% of outages are caused by environmental conditions. This means that at least 70% of outages are preventable if the right protocol is followed.
So, in order to offer a truly reliable grid, steps must be taken to mitigate the risk that wildlife poses to this reliable power. This can be a win/win relationship…by protecting wildlife we protect our power. By protecting power, we protect our wildlife.
Don’t you just love when two great things come together like that?
From negative public perception to the reality of habitat loss increasing the potential for wildlife integration with power lines, being a good environmental steward is more important than ever. It’s not only about the cost, but we, as a society, have also begun to appreciate our environment in a new light.
And while vocalized views regarding wildlife and environmental concerns have become more popular as of late, we are becoming increasingly aware of the way in which we treat our planet. Power Line Sentry is interested in doing our part to be good stewards of the land, and, to top it off, we are more involved in helping to hold others accountable for their actions too.
However, while this realization is valuable, the history is devastating. We humans have had a disastrous effect on wildlife. In 2019 the BBC published data illustrating that wildlife is in “catastrophic decline due to human destruction”.1
On the flip side, a healthy ecosystem is a healthy economy.
And while this chart depicts the global situation, it also illustrates how it is more important than ever that we take every precaution in the book when it comes to wildlife mitigation.
So, what does wildlife mitigation have to do with power reliability?
Government fines, negative public perception, and power outages themselves all impact the bottom line of electricidal power general companies. There is a potential to lose money and to lose community goodwill.
On the other hand, there is an opportunity to create beneficial relationships and situations.
For example, we all know that wind turbines are good for climate change but devastating to birds. So, monetary fines for bird kills are often offset by companies needing to prevent bird loss in other areas.
There are extensive wildlife mitigation protocols for other projects or other regions in order to offset the negative impact from a different project.
Another amazing example is when mitigation involves not prohibiting animals from interacting with power, but in fact the exact opposite.
Some solar farms in Nevada and California have openings in their power plant boundary fences to allow the desert tortoises to enter because it turns out the solar panels provide the optimal conditions for the plant growth necessary for the tortoise diet.
Dale Devitt, soil and water scientist puts it best: “…We believe the results demonstrate that a paradigm shift is needed in terms of how solar facilities are installed. Installations should be designed not only from an engineering perspective but a biological perspective as well.” 2
Additionally, some solar generation farms are combining their efforts with agricultural production in a system known as “agrovoltaics”. The largest commercially active agrivoltaics system is Jack’s Solar Garden3 in Colorado, where they focus on crop and vegetation growth under solar panels. By increasing vegetation, they are also increasing potential habitat for our avian friends.
Originally, electrical infrastructure was essentially designed to cover the necessary distance in the most direct way – in order to use the least amount of materials. That is not the case for today’s electrical projects.
In the last several years, our general approach to constructing power lines has changed. Now, rather than build our power lines essentially without regard to the big picture, the industry employees dedicated wildlife biologists and environmental specialists working alongside utility engineers in order to ensure the most responsible path is chosen.
By taking a big picture approach to planning we can approach wildlife mitigation from the design phase of power line construction as well.
And while we can retrofit certain aspects of systems already in service (for example we can place Raptor Guard Perching Deterrents or Spike Perching Excluders on existing power poles in order to protect birds and animals from electrocution events), it is more cost effective to address wildlife mitigation at the very beginning of the design.
Successful approaches to wildlife mitigation start with an evaluation of the current environment.
A spatial analysis involves “a geospatial analysis that facilitates the selection of a route that is compatible with regulatory, land use and availability, environmental, economic, and engineering considerations.”
GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping plays a large role in this and in fact habitats have been aided in tremendous ways by the development of GIS software due to its ability to” predict the optimal route by incorporating all the variables under consideration.”4
A field assessment is a physical analysis of a specific region. These assessments must be scientifically defensible and, of course, they are individualized for each project. “Field assessment can often minimize collision risks by identifying high-use bird habitats to avoid during route evaluation.”4
General key points to note in any field assessment, according to APLIC, are listed below:
“• Presence and abundance of bird species in the vicinity of the alternative routes
- Occurrence of species of concern, such as endangered species
- Location of habitat used by birds of concern
- Daily and seasonal use patterns for each species, including a differentiation between migration and daily use”4
Avian Risk Assessment
An avian risk assessment evaluates the risk of collision with power lines, the risk of electrocution from perching events, and the risk of issues from nesting events. Information garnered from these assessments can be used to prioritize segments that need modified. Both quantitative and qualitive estimates of risk are important.
“An avian risk assessment includes several steps: problem formulation (e.g., identifying species affected and specific issues), characterization of exposure and effects, risk assessment, and risk management.”4
These assessments and surveys are vital and invaluable.
Without conducting a survey as the very first step in the process, the path to constructing an environmentally responsible power line project is wildly and negatively impacted.
When we look at line placement and pole placement, we are looking at an ecosystem as a whole. And while construction plans for any project are based in engineering, there are various aspects that can be addressed during planning in order to best address wildlife mitigation goals.
Due to the difficulties of gathering accurate data when it comes to wildlife, the exact impact that line placement is not known. The current estimation is that “between 8 million and 57 million birds are killed in the United States annually from collisions with electric utility lines”. 5
57 million in the US alone is not a small number. Not only are these wires, aka lines, hard to see, but in poor weather conditions or in low light (and remember, 80% of migratory birds travel at night) flight possesses a serious risk to a creature that travels solely by flight.
Across the globe in South Africa, another startling situation is taking shape. “Vulture populations in areas with high concentration of powerlines are likely to go extinct, from electrocution mortality alone, within 20–35 years (Boshoff et al. 2011).”6
In another scenario, sometimes we can make it too easy for some predators to hunt their prey. In areas where the sage grouse (an endangered species) live, placing power lines and poles near their breeding grounds provide hunting perches from which raptors can hunt sage grouse during a time when the birds are venerable. By preventing them from accessing these perching areas with broad vista sight lines we increase the grouse’s viability.
This scenario is also the case of the lesser prairie-chicken, which has lost approximately 90% of its original habitat in the southern Great Plains and is also hunted by raptors. Species like the prairie-chicken, that are threatened but not officially endangered, require additional attention. Today, only 34,000 lesser prairie-chickens remain in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.
When species are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to cause them harm, either directly or indirectly. It also triggers the establishment of critical habitat that is to be protected.
Because of extra attentiveness to habitat and potential hunting grounds, a thoughtful approach to power line placement is vital for threatened and endangered species.
Line placement, aka line routing, should consider not only areas of high bird use, but also migratory patterns and proximity to avian habitats.
It is important to address these topics in great detail – noting where the wetlands/forests are located in relation to the potential power line route can shed light on where the birds might roost as well as where they might hunt.
Being cognizant of wildlife habitat provides indicators where heavy flight traffic may exist. Birds that are landing or taking off are at greater risk for power line collisions.
However, if there is a plethora of mature trees to use a perch – because trees are often more favorable over power poles – then maximizing forest management practices becomes of vital importance.
Because of these reasons and many more, looking at the big picture of wildlife habitat and wildlife habits is a vital part of planning.
Orientation plays a large role in risk to wildlife, so getting this right is vital to wildlife mitigation.
“Orientation of power lines relative to biological characteristics (e.g., flight behavior, season, and habitat use) and environmental conditions (e.g., weather patterns and topographical
features) can influence collision risk. When planning power line routes, features such as mountain
ridges, river valleys, and shorelines that are in traditional flight corridors should be considered.”7
“For example, the perpendicular orientation of a line relative to a topographical feature poses a greater collision risk to local and migrating birds, whereas a parallel orientation reduces risk.”4
While scientific data regarding the role that phase conductors and line configuration plays is lacking, it is “a collision factor that intuitively makes sense and most researchers agree that keeping the vertical arrangement of multi-conductor transmission lines to a minimum is beneficial because it reduces the height of the collision zone”.4
Lighting is important to wildlife mitigation, but unfortunately it has only become a topic of interest relatively recently.
“Studies of bird collisions with communication towers and other tall structures have shown that steady-burning white or red lights can disorient migrating birds at night especially when migration coincides with inclement weather.”8
“This disorientation can cause birds to collide with the lighted structure, guy wires on a communication tower, or each other. It can also cause the birds to circle the light source, which may also result in exhaustion and injury or death.”4
As we start to dig into the issues of power reliability, minimizing the potential for negative wildlife interactions with electrical infrastructure is key.
This is because as habitat has become further infringed on by remote renewable power generation or aging infrastructure, the potential for negative effects has increased. But, fortunately, through careful placement of lines and the installation of mitigating products we can significantly reduce these impacts.
We all know (now, retrospectively,) that we must work to proactively mitigate possible issues before the issues become reality. And we all realize that power reliability through wildlife mitigation specifically is vital to ensuring authentic power reliability.
It also means that we must be purposeful in our approach – that we have to do everything in our power (get it?!) to minimize the effect of these issues throughout every step of planning, construction, and maintenance.
Lastly, we must remember that everything is connected. “When we protect animals and plants, we also protect the forests, pasturelands, mountains and other ecosystems that allow us to survive.”9
4 APLIC’s Reducing Avian Collisions with Power Lines: The State of the Art 2012
7 Colson and Yeoman 1978; Faanes 1987
8 Manville 2007a, 2009; Gehring et al. 2009, 2011