Rural Missouri Magazine

Keeping power lines
and trees apart
Cuivre River Electric Cooperative strikes a balance between
improving reliability and keeping members happy

by Jeff Joiner

Cuivre River Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Troy, has implemented an ambitios program to cut brush and maintain the system’s entire 4,500 miles of power line right of way.

“That’s 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. It’s neat and trim.

“This is what we’re 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 doesn’t necessarily look attractive to some of Cuivre River’s more than 44,000 members. That’s 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.

“It’s 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 property.”

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.

Scott 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 River’s service area Skopec points out a power line that disappears into a wall of vegetation. “You can’t 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, we’re now offering our members a long-term solution,” says Rick Didion, Cuivre River’s 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 someone’s 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 can’t 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-op’s 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.

On 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 lines.

“Right now we’re playing catch-up with our right-of-way maintenance,” says Didion. “Once we get through the entire system the amount of money we’ll have to spend on maintenance will decrease dramatically. And we’re already seeing improved system reliability.”

In the meantime Skopec is on the front lines of a campaign to educate Cuivre River’s members about the need to trim and remove trees and other vegetation from around power lines. Sometimes it’s a tough sell.

“People get upset now because the co-op never had to cut their trees before. ‘Well, you’d 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-op’s 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 don’t 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 they’re saying, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice some of the beauty of my house to have reliable electricity so go ahead and remove that tree that’s causing problems.’”

Skopec 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 River’s 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 tree’s 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.

Cuivre River works a number of different right-of-way contractors that keep more than 60 employees busy clearing trees and brush from beneath the cooperative’s power lines. It is a never ending job.

And most of the state’s 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. It’s a way to strike a balance between the two often competiting interests, says Didion.

“It’s 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 cooperative’s need to keep it out of the power line,” says Didion.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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