The springtime line patrol is getting underway at Southside Electric Cooperative in Crewe, Va., a 55,000-meter co-op that runs from the forested foothills near Roanoke to the marshy lowlands south of Richmond.
More than 2 million trees shroud the co-op’s right-of-way corridors, and this is the time of year when Louis Urbine and his vegetation management crew are checking every inch of those spans for overhang threats. With a couple of in-house staffers and on-call contractors, he’s planning a summer’s worth of work to prevent tree-related outages.
But this time around, Urbine has a new tool at his disposal. Last year, he took a flyer, literally, on clearing his right-of-way with a helicopter. And he liked what he saw.
“We were able to cut almost 26 miles in three days with the aerial trimming, compared to 12 miles in three weeks of climbing,” he says.
Urbine chose a particularly critical stretch of line for his helicopter pilot project.
“We had one circuit that we had planned that’s going to serve a new hospital,” he says. “I wanted to bulletproof that circuit as good as I could. That was an awesome project for us, just from the standpoint that it was our first experience.”
Southside Electric even posted a short video of the helicopter work on the co-op’s website. The clip shows the chopper zipping along, a long string of radial blades dangling on a flexible framework, shearing the heavy, leafy canopy into a uniform wall of foliage well back from the line.
That takes a pilot who knows the job, Urbine says, and his helicopter contractor had just the guy.
“Jeff Pigott, who flies for Aerial Solutions, previously worked as a lineman,” Urbine says. “He knows both sides of the business and is a very skilled pilot. One day, he cut a limb probably 4 inches in diameter. It was laying across all three lines. He moved the helicopter sideways and pulled the limb off the line. It’s a very efficient way to do things.”
And for Urbine and Southside Electric, efficiency pays off when it comes to clearing rights-of-way. From paper and lumber companies’ pine plantations to wild forests on mountain slopes to wet, sandy terrain that Urbine describes as “not a swamp, but close,” there’s a lot of wood reaching for the co-op’s lines.
“We have about 6,200 miles of primary line and another 60, 70 miles of transmission,” Urbine says. “Our tree density on the right-of-way is about 2,175,000 trees, and that puts us at a very high tree exposure compared to other utilities. We are an extremely rural cooperative, and vegetation management is huge for us.”
Urbine works with Davey Resource Group to keep track of hazard trees on or just outside the co-op’s right-of-way corridors, and keeping those line-threatening snags in check is a monumental task.
“Hazard trees will always be an issue at the cooperative,” Urbine says. “We had five crews here [in 2015], and in the past two years, we cut over 11,000 hazard trees, but there’s potentially more than 2 million more of them.”
Southside Electric members appeared to be receptive to the helicopter trimming, Urbine says.
“The membership was overall supportive,” he says. “We made a concentrated effort to make sure we provided notification prior to any member near the trimming, and most were curious, even excited, to see it take place.”
In the end, he says, bringing in a helicopter with what amounts to a giant chainsaw swaying beneath it is a less drastic right-of-way tactic than it might seem at first glance.
“As with anything, it has its place,” he says. “For rural cooperatives like Southside Electric, I think it’s a tool that you need in your toolbox.”