For a couple of years, Fred Ebersole had spotted ospreys swooping down to catch fish from a pond on his 150- acre farm in the south-central Pennsylvania community of East Berlin. But in June, the fish hawks, as they’re known locally, started nesting on an Adams Electric Cooperative pole near his house.
When passing line-crew members from the co-op detected the birds’ handiwork, they let Ebersole know that a fire hazard was in the offing.
“They told me that if it was raining one day and the birds were pushing around in the nest, the wet sticks could catch fire and burn down the pole,” Ebersole says.
Soon, Adams Electric was implementing its avian protection plan (APP), working with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to remove the eggless nest and its threat to man, bird, and electric reliability. Undeterred, the birds returned the next day. With consent from Ebersole and the game commission, a crew mounted a 60-foot post aside the pole with a platform to hold an osprey nest, which can weigh 300 pounds. Raptor guards placed on the pole’s crossarms should deter future nesting.
“It’s a good feeling to be able to do a project like this,” says Steve Rasmussen, CEO and general manager of the Gettysburg-based co-op. “It’s a win for everyone—the birds, the landowners, the game commission, and the co-op.”
What’s the life of a bird worth? $100? $200? $1,000?
Turns out it’s $15,000. That’s the per-bird amount that offending utilities have doled out in recent years for failing to vouchsafe winged species protected by law. Company officials can also face misdemeanor or felony charges and in extreme cases even prison time up to six months.
Consider that an estimated 25 million birds die annually from contact with electric lines, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Add more high-voltage transmission construction, more wind and solar farms, and more birds shielded by federal environmental laws, and the chances of electric cooperative liability in the millions of dollars are greater than ever—and so is the need to develop an APP like the one Adams Electric adopted.
“The reality is that there are potential financial, public relations, and reliability risks. A number of factors influence avian electrocution, from habitat type to time of year to pole configuration around your territory. You could be at risk anywhere on your system, but some places may have higher or lower risk,” says Janelle Lemen, senior principal for environmental issues at NRECA.
The association is creating a template for co-ops interested in an APP, which typically outlines how they will deal with employee training, modify infrastructure, and process bird incidents.
“Should birds get killed and the Fish and Wildlife Service get involved, they have shown much more consideration with companies that can show they have an avian protection plan and have implemented it,” she says.
To be sure, house cats and windows do a lot more damage to birds than do electric utilities. While it notes that precise measurements are impossible, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates cats take out 2.4 billion birds a year, with more than 303 million birds fatally injuring themselves by flying into glass.
The difference, of course, is that predatory felines cannot be fined for doing what comes naturally. Utilities can. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, updated several times since, protects more than 1,000 species by banning killings, removing nests or eggs, or importing and exporting birds without a federal permit. It’s a strict liability law with no exceptions for lack of intent, knowledge, or proof. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act extended similar protections to the national bird in 1940 and to golden eagles in 1962.
Those laws cost PacifiCorp Energy $2.5 million in 2014, when the utility pleaded guilty in federal court in connection with the deaths of 38 golden eagles and 336 other protected birds, such as hawks and blackbirds, at two wind farms in Wyoming. As part of the deal, the utility had to put together a plan telling the government how it would mitigate bird mortalities at its wind farms.
It’s not easy to stay a step ahead of the birds, though. Just ask Stephanie Johnston, environmental services specialist at Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Co-op (SSVEC) in Willcox, Arizona.
“Ravens are the bane of our existence here,” she says. “With new construction, we place bird-proofing up all over the pole. But with our existing plant, it’s definitely more reactive due to the number of poles in our system, budget constraints, and manpower available.”
SSVEC maintains historical data on bird flight and roosting patterns and has a layer in its geographic information system map that indicates trouble spots. Case in point: Johnston says the co-op recently focused attention on a large feeder line serving an agricultural area that had repeatedly been victimized by bird-related outages.
It was time for detective work. Johnston went in the field during nesting season, surveyed the feeder, and looked at poles and nests. If she found something, she recorded the pole number. Crews took appropriate actions, removing inactive nests and installing all manner of deterrents, such as spinning, colored flappers called “Fireflies” that rotate and flash in the sunlight to discourage birds from drawing near.
“We use nest diverters, covers, a piece that looks like a brown plastic tent that they can cut and mount on double crossarms or behind transformers, where ravens love to build. I’m constantly looking to see what else is available,” Johnston says. “Some of the poles look like Christmas trees, they have so many Fireflies spinning on them, but they work most of the time.”
She’s also getting help from the public. SSVEC has a form on its website for members to submit if they spot a nesting issue somewhere on the co-op’s 4,100 miles of line.
“It’s laborious and time-consuming, but we do what we can to try to prevent outages and also follow the federal and state laws, rules, and regulations to protect the birds,” Johnston says.
In Wyoming, Powder River Energy Corp. (PRECorp) has put a different twist on communications with a newsletter devoted to protecting birds.
The Flight Line is one way the Sundance-based co-op brings news and updates about its APP to employees. It covers a wide range of topics, from alerts on upcoming nesting seasons to an explanation of how it’s modifying substations constructed long before avian protection became a high-profile issue.
Improving raptor safety is a top order of business at the co-op, which holds avian safety forums that bring together employees, representatives of the oil and gas industry, power line contractors, lineworkers, and consultants from government agencies. The comprehensive APP earned PRECorp the Wyoming Wildlife Foundation Award.
“We started the plan in 2001 and were certainly pioneers in doing so,” says CEO Mike Easley. “PRECorp has always tried to stay ahead of the curve in everything we do, with a forward-looking board and staff.”
PRECorp is the first to acknowledge that a plan can’t prevent all avian deaths. The co-op has been developing new guidelines and standards for its substation facilities.
“Balancing resources, both energy resources and wildlife resources, is a priority. We hope to continue to work with our regulatory agencies to promote environmental awareness in the industry,” Easley says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says the first reported electrocution of an eagle was in 1922, though bird electrocutions had been in the news since the turn of the century. For more than 50 years, the problem was largely left in the hands of local utilities and state agencies.
But reports of wide-scale electrocutions in the early 1970s drew renewed attention from wildlife managers and a growing conservation movement. Among the turning points: The Fish and Wildlife Service launched a 1974 investigation into the deaths of more than 300 eagles in four Western states. Fourteen alone perished along a 14-mile stretch of three-phase line near Roswell, New Mexico.
In 1989, electric utilities, agencies, conservation groups, and makers of bird protection products formed the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee (APLIC). NRECA and several co-ops are among its members. Initially aimed at protecting whooping cranes, APLIC is a clearinghouse of best practices and research support to find the delicate balance between environmental stewardship and electric reliability.
During that time period, some co-ops started creating their own plans to deal with avian issues. One of the earliest, established in the 1990s, came from Arizona’s G&T Cooperatives.
“The most consistent problem Arizona’s G&Ts has is ravens nesting in our substations. We electrocute very few birds each year, but when we do, it is typically a raven or a great horned owl,” said Michelle Freeark, executive director of legal and corporate services. “The biggest advantage to having an APP is that it provides some protection from prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It does also provide written procedures that we can relay to field personnel.”
At Adams Electric, Rasmussen says their plan, which was firmed up earlier in 2017, has standardized procedures across the co-op’s three districts. “There is now established policy that all employees can follow in a consistent manner to deal with any problems that might arise in the future and a consistent plan for reporting bird and nest takings to the proper authorities, including the Pennsylvania Game Commission.”
Co-ops also are collecting resources on a statewide basis, with opportunities for individual systems to tailor plans to their specific needs. Montana announced its plan in 2016, touching on all components of avian safety, including notifying the Fish and Wildlife Service if a bird dies because the agency takes feathers to Native American tribes for ceremonial use.
“No group of utilities in one state has ever jointly submitted a protection plan to the federal government or the state,” says Gary Wiens, assistant general manager of the Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association.
New Threats, New Opportunities
When Rick Harness started studying the relationship between wildlife and energy more than a quarter-century ago, windmills were something you mostly associated with Holland. Now, they’re a major part of his work consulting on avian protection for EDM International in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“With more things in play on the landscape, there are more places where birds can find themselves in trouble,” says Harness, a certified wildlife biologist who has worked on more than 100 APPs for co-ops, other electric utilities, and government agencies.
The Fish and Wildlife Service most recently surmised that wind turbines kill between 134,000 and 327,000 birds annually. But because the industry is growing at a rapid clip, that total could hit 1.4 million a year, the agency says.
It will negotiate with wind developers to allow them to “take” a specified number of eagles, for example, when they plan a project. The term generally refers to deaths or injuries. But the wind company must offset that number by retrofitting power poles somewhere else to preserve a like number of birds. It’s a complicated process that involves computations of the number of poles and the life span of the retrofits.
“We’re doing it right now with one co-op that has had two wind companies approach them,” Harness says. “There are lots of moving pieces and lots of hurdles, which we’re addressing. For instance, who’s responsible for monitoring to make sure the retrofitting is lasting?”
But Harness also sees an opportunity for co-ops to be the beneficiaries of offsets as more wind comes on-line.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is get ahead of this, like approaching a statewide association and saying, ‘You’re working on fixing poles. How would your co-ops feel about somebody else paying for that retrofitting as an offset?’” he asks. “That way, everything could be lined up for upcoming wind projects. This is a totally new field.”
Like wind, solar power is coming under scrutiny for its effects on birds. The Ivanpah solar plant in California, in the Mojave Desert south of Las Vegas, is an avian death chamber. An estimated 6,000 are incinerated every year as they chase insects around three towers that catch rays to power a 390-MW plant.
Officials at NRG Energy, which owns the three-year old facility, say they are doing what they can to cut down on mortalities, with limited success. “If there’s a silver bullet out there, maybe we’ll find it,” spokesman David Knox told the Los Angeles Times in June.
Most utility-scale solar farms are designed differently, without the towers, though there is scant data about their impact on birds. A study of seven large solar arrays conducted by Argonne National Laboratory counted more than 1,300 deaths from 2011 to 2014. But researchers concluded, “More systematic study of utility-scale solar facilities is needed in order to make conclusions about avian risk and mortality.”
Developing a Template
In Anadarko, Oklahoma, it’s about whooping cranes and bald eagles. Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC) has put bird diverters on new projects located within 1 mile of suitable stopover habitats for whooping cranes. WFEC also adjusts its timing and construction techniques to avoid unintentional taking of bald eagles and other protected species.
Those are voluntary best management practices that the G&T develops in consultation with the Rural Utilities Service in anticipation of its final avian protection plan.
“We are aware of the efforts of NRECA to develop a template APP for co-ops and have volunteered to help review the draft of that template,” says John P. McCreight, environmental coordinator at the G&T. “Once the template has been completed, WFEC intends to adopt it and modify it specifically for WFEC.”
NRECA’s Lemen says the template will be completed in the coming months, with webinars to follow. One element certain to be included involves the public relations side of things. It’s a proactive approach that can mitigate someone who snaps a picture of a felled bird and posts it on social media.
“An outreach component is an important part of an avian protection plan. Co-ops should have conversations with members about how to get involved,” she says. “It lets people know that co-ops are being good stewards while they work to prevent possible problems.”
If so, there’s a chance that the thorny issue of avian protection can have a positive ending, like the one back in East Berlin, where Fred Ebersole can now view osprey movements on the new Adams Electric platform from the comfort of his porch.
“My wife and I just saw two ospreys in a nest they were building with sticks on the pole the power company put up,” he says.