New York Power Authority

New York Power Authority’s Lew Payne on New Research and Innovative Technology

Sept. 26, 2022
Vegetation Management powerhouse Lew Payne shares his insights in a recent interview.

New York Power Authority’s Lew Payne has over 30 years of industry experience and is currently the Manager of Rights-of-Way and Environmental Services for the New York Power Authority (NYPA) where he oversees the transmission system. The NYPA lead the transition to a carbon-free, economically vibrant New York through customer partnerships, innovative energy solutions, and the responsible supply of affordable, clean, and reliable electricity. The company practices integrated vegetation management and developed a system that has been in place for over twenty years. According to Lew, the NYPA has 1,400 miles or 23,000 acres of transmission right-of-way.

Long-Range Vegetation Management

For over twenty years, Lew has continuously worked on the development of a long-range system-wide vegetation management plan. An important thing to remember about implementing vegetation management plans, Lew explains, is that they don’t just happen overnight. It’s important to think long-term to effectively establish the correct strategies.

The Challenges of a Heavily Regulated State

Although the NYPA is a state-owned utility, there are still regulations that must be complied with. Some of these regulations include protections for wetlands and the use of herbicides. Using herbicides can become quite a tricky situation as every state has different regulations. For example, just because an herbicide is approved for use in one state it does not mean it can be used in another. In New York specifically, utilities must have herbicides approved by the state even after they have been approved by the EPA. These regulations are enforced by New York’s Department of Public Service, and they specify that there must be a long-range vegetation management system in place. Being a state agency, the NYPA is exempt from this. However, the NYPA chooses to comply by having a well-established vegetation management plan and taking steps to fulfill wetland and herbicide regulations.

How is GIS Used in Vegetation Management? 

A geographic Information System (GIS) is a type of technology that produces and stores geographic data. The New York Power Authority utilizes GIS as the core management tool for its vegetation program. With GIS, multiple layers can be captured such as regulations, landowners, plant and profiles, and easements. Since its earliest days, the NYPA has taken a vegetation inventory. This process is conducted by walking the right-of-way to classify land use and cover types. Treatments are also prescribed through the examination of the densities and heights of compatible and non-compatible vegetation. Polygons, or areas that contain homogenous vegetation are identified by vegetation crews. The data for the corresponding treatment plans is then digitally recorded along with herbicide use and weather conditions. The NYPA uses this data for a process called reverse invoicing. Once polygons are completed and checked off by forestry staff, the vegetation management crew can go in and pull out the completed ones to bill them.

Managing Vegetation with Vegetation 

Lew practices a strategy that he likes to call “managing vegetation with vegetation.” This refers to managing the compatible biodiverse ecosystem and prescribing treatments. The non-compatibles are targeted by encouraging compatible vegetation. The encouragement of compatibles allows the early succession of plant communities to establish and compete for resources. This benefits the environment by decreasing the number of herbicides Lew and his crews utilize. 

One downside to this process is that Lew is finding that the compatibles have become much too dense. The reason for concern is that the density causes the non-compatibles to become hidden, making it more difficult to identify them among the compatibles. To combat this issue, Lew is focusing on making access for crews easier by mowing narrow strips (5 – 10 ft wide) under conductors. With this strategy, the escapes will remain alive and be able to penetrate the compatibles easily. Lew has been able to implement this effectively in New York.

However, we know that there are different rules and regulations around the country. And so, the question remains: could this process be applied in other regions? Lew believes it is possible if utilities have “…a true understanding of the principles of vegetation management.” “Integration vegetation management should be able to be done across North America” Lew states. In fact, Phil explains, “The Power Authority is one of eight utilities that have achieved the right-of-way steward accreditation for excellence in IVM” and this group “is spread all across the country.”

Bats, Pollinator, Herbicide and Drone Research

Vegetation management has continued to change over the years. Because of the constant evolvement of the field, research is critical. For instance, Lew is currently researching how endangered bat populations are impacted by tree cutting and right-of-way management. The second topic of research Lew is involved in is pollinator research. New York is currently working toward upgrading its systems to shift to a more renewable approach to doing business. Because of this change, mats are being put on the ground for up to twelve months.  Lew is looking into the impact these mats have on insects and pollinators.

Together with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Lew is asking: When the mats are pulled out, will the pollinators be able to return? Another area of research Lew is involved in is in testing the application of herbicides using drone technology. Currently, Lew is researching whether drones can be used in areas where it is difficult for crews to work. Using drones could facilitate the herbicide process and make operations more efficient.

With all the data Lew has collected over the years, he has been able to come up with a vegetation inventory. Last year, Lew added a “pollinator scorecard” where he and his crew rank different areas in terms of importance to pollinators. Some of the things they are paying attention to are the flowering resources, invasive species, and the types of pollinator communities that are present. Lew has garnered around 1200 of these scorecard sites that he can utilize to analyze rankings.

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging)

Lew shared that he currently only uses LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) on a quarter of his system every year. This means that it is only available to him for four years. When asked where he would invest capital if his IVM budget was doubled, Lew responded by saying that he would use LIDAR for his entire system. By using LIDAR in this way, Lew explains that he could track changes better.

Getting Involved in the Industry

Lew currently chairs multiple committees that have allowed him to share his ideas and advance his vegetation strategies. The Environmental Energy Alliance of New York is an organization consisting of subcommittees made up of various utilities. Being involved in these subcommittees has helped Lew understand utilities and come up with helpful solutions for them. Lew also chairs a Category Six Pesticide Training Committee where utilities, chemical companies, and other shareholders gather to hold industry discussions. Some other groups Lew has joined include CEATI and the North American Transmission Forum.

Taking a Sustainable Approach

“Almost every utility has a sustainability group…” Lew explains. These groups are paying attention to programs with a sustainable approach and reporting back to CEOs. One of the things Lew is focused on is sharing the sustainable benefits his programs bring so he can get better leverage and funding. Currently, Lew holds a partnership with the Davey Resource Group to work on an ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) program that measures the footprints of some of the equipment Lew’s company is using. The social aspect, Lew shared, deals with interacting with landowners. By working with sustainability groups, the NYPA gets to look at the metrics, they report on and get credit for some of its targets.

Looking Ahead: What’s in Store for Vegetation Management? 

From the first vegetation management plan to the implementation of herbicide standards, integrated vegetation management has continued to develop and change over the years. With the ever-evolving technological landscape, it is inevitable for the industry to transform into a more digital space. The way the upcoming fourth generation of industry leaders is using technology is a good indicator of how the industry will change in the future. “If you want to see where technology is going, start watching fifteen-year-old kids out there… because they’re the ones that are going to bring that new technology to the table,” Lew says. He also believes that IVM will be practiced with a more sustainable approach and that “there’s going to be a lot more focus on protecting species out there.”

*Quotes have been modified for length and clarity*

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Interview Episode Transcript from Trees & Lines Podcast: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management.

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