Community Dialogue and Environmental Sustainability

May 23, 2017
A vegetation management program that includes strong community engagement improves reception of this critical maintenance work.

Given that power outages are inconvenient, costly and potentially dangerous, it stands to reason that efforts to keep incompatible vegetation away from power lines would be met with more public acceptance. We’ve learned that a vegetation management program featuring strong community engagement and linkage to a company’s larger environmental and operational reliability commitments can help gain greater reception of this critical maintenance work.

Community Engagement

Selective removal of incompatible species in urban, suburban and rural transmission corridors is the cornerstone of ITC’s vegetation management program. Foresters and other trained field staff routinely inspect our corridors, identify appropriate and incompatible species on a site-by-site basis, and recommend appropriate management methods.

We remove incompatible trees rather than trim them, because trimming often stimulates aggressive new growth, which can be hazardous during hot summer months when transmission lines sag because of the higher energy load they carry. A secondary objective of ITC’s vegetation management program is to keep access to transmission equipment free of large woody plants and trees to give crews room to inspect these assets and perform maintenance.

By the time we enter a neighborhood to perform this work, there’s a good chance the community knows us. Our community relations team works to build the company’s public image in order to foster the long-term benefits of community support and good will. We maintain relationships with community leaders to help build understanding and support for our vegetation management activities and new capital projects. Attending local community board meetings helps us stay abreast of community issues and opportunities within our footprint.

Through education, our community relations team aims to lessen the impact that our vegetation management policies and practices may have on landowners and municipalities. Knowing that tree removal can be a sensitive issue for landowners, we work closely with residents where vegetation issues need to be addressed. Our foresters are available to discuss individual questions or concerns with residents, and we offer help to residents in selecting vegetation that can be safely established near transmission lines. In certain cases, we schedule our vegetation work for the winter months to minimize disruption to recreational paths and impacts on compatible vegetation.

Environmental Stewardship

Managing the high-voltage power grid across several states carries far-ranging environmental responsibility. In fact, the modern utility is required to think beyond the reliable delivery of power to consider how its infrastructure works in harmony with the environment.

Since our transmission systems cross all types of urban, suburban and rural environments, it’s important that we coexist with these surroundings as good stewards of the land, water and air. This ethic, driven by an ISO-14001-based environmental management system, begins in our workplaces and extends to building, operating and maintaining the grid. These systems include poles, towers, power lines and substations incorporated into the nation’s electric infrastructure.

When planning transmission projects, we include environmental assessments and apply best practices for wetlands, threatened and endangered species, and other sensitive habitats. By including these factors at the front end in a transmission line route analysis, we can adjust the placement or timing of construction to avoid or limit the environmental impact.

In the day-to-day operation and maintenance of our transmission systems, management of vegetation under and around transmission corridors can accomplish more than the main objective of maintaining safe and reliable electric service. This work can result in diverse, stable, natural greenways where grasses, wildflowers and low-growing shrubs thrive with less environmental disturbance.

Conservation organizations can be allies in these stewardship efforts. We partner with local watershed groups, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy and other natural resources organizations to identify common interests such as controlling invasive species, restoring habitat and expanding natural prairie grass coverage in our corridors as an alternative to mowing. Once these organizations are familiar with ITC, we can approach one another with a baseline of trust as we move forward with our intersecting interests. As an asset to these relationships, our community relations team has diverse educational backgrounds, including biology, landscape architecture and urban planning, enabling these individuals to interact effectively with their counterparts in the conservation community.

Maintaining a dialogue with the community to gain greater understanding of vegetation management and viewing this work as part of our company’s holistic environmental stewardship and operational reliability programs has paid off for us. Few industries operate as close to nature as utilities do, so this industry is ideally positioned to partner and contribute to environmental sustainability — while still keeping the power flowing. ♦

 Joseph Bennett is vice president of engineering for ITC Holdings Corp., responsible for the asset management, design and project engineering functions as they support the capital and maintenance programs for ITC’s operating entities.

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