A Cut AboveJanuary 2023
One of the defining features of the Suwannee Valley is its natural beauty. The nearby city of Live Oak is even named for the distinctive trees so common in the area.
Like many of our members, those oaks have deep roots. They’ve given their sturdy wood to ships as far back as the decades after the American Revolution and continue to provide food and shelter to local wildlife today.
But while trees such as these are beautiful, they’re also the primary cause of electric outages on the Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative system. About 80% of all outages are caused by limbs and branches coming in contact with, or falling on, power lines.
“Trees are the leading cause of our power outages, and we live in a tree-rich environment. They grow all year long, and they also die,” says Leslie Laffoon, SVEC’s right-of-way supervisor. “We continually move throughout our system, cutting back the dead ones and what we call ‘hazard trees’ near power lines to reduce outages.”
Right of way refers to the stretches of land underneath and around power lines. As an electric utility, SVEC has the right and responsibility to keep that area well-maintained and clear of any growth that could interfere with power lines and other equipment.
Not only is having an effective right of way program important to providing reliable electric service, but it also helps keep cooperative members safe. SVEC power lines can carry up to 25,000 volts of electricity. A tree that touches a line can become energized, which is extremely dangerous — even deadly.
That’s why SVEC works hard to maintain 15 feet of clearance on either side of power lines, ensuring that members’ families are safe and reducing the likelihood of branches causing an outage when winds and rain pick up.
“You can’t do much about the major storms, but our goal is to reduce the day-to-day outages that might occur by maintaining the right of way,” Laffoon says.
With over 4,000 miles of line to cover, SVEC alone does not have the manpower to control tree growth across its entire system. That’s why the cooperative partners with contractors, such as Bryant Tree Service, to check each section of line on a regular cycle.
Currently, the cycle takes about 3 and a half years to cover the entire system. But Laffoon and his team are working to bring it down to 3 years.
“We’ve taken a pretty aggressive approach,” he says. “It’s really helping, and we’re getting better and better every year. We’re hoping that over the next few years we’ll continue to see a significant reduction in the number of outages our members experience.”
Wherever possible, contract crews clear the space above and below power lines. These “ground to sky” clearances mean no vegetation is left to grow up under the lines and no branches are left to hang over them. While it’s not always possible to achieve that goal, leaving as few branches as possible helps prevent falling ones from interrupting electric service.
As contract crews handle the cyclical clearing, SVEC employees take care of day-to-day calls from members. Those calls can include dead or dangerous trees that appear at risk of falling on an electric line.
An SVEC crew will cut down a tree only if is endangering cooperative equipment. If a tree needs trimming only to prevent damage to a member’s personal property, the cooperative can recommend a tree service handle the job.
“If someone tells us they see a tree that’s about to tear down a line, we go in and cut it,” says Laffoon. “We have more than 4,000 miles of line, so we can’t see everything. It helps for people to call in what they see.”
Clearing the Way
While right-of-way crews are a vital part of keeping the lights on, they are not lineworkers with the equipment needed to restore power. Rather, when members see them clearing debris around a broken pole after a major storm, they should think of the right-of-way crews as setting the stage for the people who will complete repairs.
“Sometimes you’ll have a tree that a right-of-way crew has to remove before the linemen can get to work,” says Laffoon. “That could take a couple of hours to clean up while the linemen are getting somebody else’s lights on.”
In addition to clearing large debris, right-of-way crews are careful to mow a work area and remove any smaller roots and branches that could slow down work or even lead to injury for lineworkers.
“We try to keep a clean work environment for them,” Laffoon says. “It can be aggravating or even dangerous to have a broken pole and be tripping over fallen trees when trying to construct a new line or restore power.”
It’s a challenging job, and one that isn’t always met with enthusiasm from members unhappy to see their trees or plants trimmed away from power lines. But Laffoon tries to help members understand that a tree growing near cooperative equipment might not only pose a risk to their own electric service, but also to hundreds of their neighbors.
“If someone is on a little tap line by themselves and they don’t want us to cut a tree that won’t affect anyone else, we might make an exception,” he says. “But if they’re on a main line and a branch falls on it, many more people could lose power if we haven’t trimmed it.”
Ultimately, a proactive right-of-way program is one of the most important parts of providing reliable electric service to all SVEC members. And as the cooperative begins to construct its fiber network, it will also be key to maintaining a reliable internet connection.
“Starting this year, people may notice crews working to create the required 8-foot minimum clearance below the fiber optic cables that will be installed under our power lines,” says Laffoon. “Any shrubs and small trees growing close to our lines may have to be trimmed lower than usual to keep them from interfering with the cable.”
Members should keep safety in mind and never try to trim a tree in the right-of-way zone on their own. If you would like help trimming or removing trees near a power line, please contact SVEC. Or, if you see a tree in contact with a power line, stay away and notify the cooperative by calling (800) 447-4509.