A good reputation can be as challenging to maintain as it is to build — especially for electric cooperatives. Customer satisfaction is the backbone of a good reputation, and several factors can sway public opinion for energy companies.
The cost and reliability of electrical transmission service are two primary concerns for customers. One of the biggest threats to both is incompatible vegetation, which poses a threat to interfere with utility infrastructure, jeopardize electrical transmission reliability and increase long-term maintenance costs for vegetation managers. When vegetation management expenses increase, the same often goes for co-op member rates. This makes vegetation management programs essential expenses for electric cooperatives across the country.
CHOOSING THE BEST VEGETATION MANAGEMENT SOLUTION
Some vegetation managers use mechanical mowing and other mechanized strategies exclusively to maintain vegetation control. When incompatible vegetation poses a threat to utility infrastructure, they mow or cut it. Then, when it grows back, they mow or cut it again. Newly established plants, which grow from seeds distributed by past manual or mechanical control methods also are mowed. If this sounds counterproductive, it’s because it often is.
Mowing practices can stimulate regrowth in targeted plants. This leads to higher stem densities over time, which consistently requires more mowing, manpower and funding to control. In addition to increasing maintenance costs over time, most mechanized strategies are nonselective, meaning they control incompatible vegetation as effectively as they control desirable low-growing native plant communities.
As part of its current seven-year mechanical clearing cycle, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative trims trees and sprays selective herbicides throughout its service territory, which consists of more than 4,000 right-of-way (ROW) miles throughout Missouri. Every two years after clearing, these treatments are used to maintain all targeted vegetation within 20 feet of each side of the centerline. The strategy has worked successfully to date, but the expense of these mechanical methods is still something Co-Mo is working to reduce.
“We currently cut, slash or mulch to support our brush control program,” said Jon Schulte, director of Engineering and Operations with Co-Mo. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort to do that, and it’s only getting more expensive. Our goal is to reduce stem densities and use grasses to provide chemically facilitated biological control. That can extend cycles by up to a year and allow applicators to cover more ground at a faster pace.”
Years ago, contract partners first applied an herbicide product containing glyphosate to manage incompatible trees and woody plant species throughout the utility’s ROW corridors. However, this nonselective chemistry also controlled desirable plant species that would have otherwise formed a natural barrier against the reestablishment of problematic tree species, such as locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), hickory (Carya) and elm (Ulmus). As a result, maintenance requirements and associated costs remained fairly consistent from one year to the next.
Glyphosate use also resulted in significant brownout throughout ROW managed by Co-Mo, which led to complaints and public scrutiny. Considering the underwhelming ROI of this particular strategy, as well as its impact on the utility’s public image, Co-Mo needed an alternative solution to protect not only utility infrastructure and surrounding wildlife habitat, but also the co-op’s reputation and annual pocketbook.
THE BENEFITS OF SELECTIVE VEGETATION CONTROL
Co-Mo worked with industry partners to identify a solution that could help applicators selectively treat incompatible vegetation throughout the co-op’s ROW corridors. Following a conversation with Lucas Madison, a Vegetation Management Specialist with Corteva Agriscience, contract partners of the co-op recommended an alternative approach capable of increasing productivity and extending treatment cycles: a grass-friendly brush mix containing TerraVue® herbicide and Vastlan® herbicide from Corteva.
“In the past three years, there’s been a big push to not only move to selective applications but also selective herbicides,” Madison said. “By supporting the development of beneficial plants and grasses, we’re creating an ecosystem that thrives off chemically facilitated biological control.”
The mix of TerraVue and Vastlan controls targeted vegetation through spot treatments and low-volume foliar applications. In addition to effectively controlling incompatible vegetation without impacting the development of desirable plants and native grasses, the custom blend has enhanced cost efficiency and public perceptions for Co-Mo since 2020.
“It made zero sense to keep doing what we were doing,” Schulte said. “Now we spend less; we spray more; and we don’t have brownout. We even had phone calls last year from members and landowners who wanted to know which herbicide we applied because they wanted to use it elsewhere on their property.”
Low-volume foliar applications can be used to enhance control of woody plants up to 8 feet tall.
Enhancing the development of grasses and small forbs enables Co-Mo to create beneficial habitat for small mammals, which increases the consumption of woody brush seeds for biological control. As a result, ROW corridors managed by the co-op’s contract partners actively support environmental sustainability.
“In the past, the rights-of-way didn’t provide any habitat for birds, rabbits, squirrels or other small animals,” Schulte said. “Now the rights-of-way are filled with vegetation that is a lot more beneficial.”
Grasses and small forbs also can prevent woody brush seed germination. According to environmental studies, such as the State Game Lands 33 (SGL 33) research project in central Pennsylvania, these benefits can lower viable woody brush seed germination by as much as 88%, which supports sustainable stem-count reductions over time.
Establishing grasses and small forbs throughout utility rights-of-way provides multiple benefits, including the creation of beneficial wildlife habitat, enhanced biological control and the prevention of woody brush seed germination.
“You’re always going to have a mechanical aspect,” Madison said. “But with herbicides, you have the ability to optimize your treatment cycles and lower your stem densities. This drops long-term costs by covering fewer miles with less product and manpower needs. Lowering stem counts enables the environment to work on our side, and that’s environmental stewardship at its finest.”
PLANNING FOR PROGRESS
Utility professionals trust their industry peers. That’s why Madison values an industry partner like Co-Mo. The co-op’s IVM-based program enhances electrical transmission reliability, environmental sustainability and resource management, providing a blueprint other utilities can follow to augment the success of their respective programs.
“We have to get past the yearly bid for dead brush mindset,” Madison said. “We need to start looking ahead to where we want to be in three cycles and beyond, and Co-Mo allows us to showcase a program that works. As a result, my hope is that industry professionals are more apt to listen to the benefits.”
Ensuring the public understands the benefits of herbicide use also is important for energy companies. That’s why many practitioners leverage Notify Your Neighbor, a resource guide launched by Corteva, to prepare for effective communications with landowners and other land entities regarding herbicide applications in their area.
“A number of contract applicators keep our Notify Your Neighbor pamphlets in their trucks to hand out to homeowners,” Madison said. “If they have any concerns, it can guide them to a variety of resources that can validate some of the conversations we’re having about herbicide applications.”
Aside from the environmental benefits, Schulte believes the economic impact of grass-friendly and other selective herbicide applications may be the most appealing to co-op members.
“A right-of-way management program is an expense program that hits the bottom line every year,” Schulte said. “If we can lower that, we are going to take pressure away from the need to increase future rates for members, which provides true value that is measurable. Corteva and contract partners can save you money in the long run, and those savings can be reallocated to other work within your program. It’s an absolute no-brainer.”
To learn more about utility vegetation management strategies and application best practices that can enhance environmental sustainability, cost efficiency and electrical transmission reliability, click here.
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