Nodak’s tree clearing program

August 2003

When I drive through other parts of the country, I find myself looking at power lines adjacent to the highway. I’m not sure why that is, as I have never actually worked on a power line and I don’t know a lot about them, other than they are expensive to own and maintain. Recently, I had occasion to drive US Highway 2 through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and through northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota. If you have traveled this route, you will know it is almost entirely covered with trees. I can only imagine the challenge that electric utilities in these areas have keeping tree growth from interfering with electric transmission and distribution.

In comparison, it seems like North Dakota has almost no trees. Someone managing a utility in northern Wisconsin probably thinks a cooperative like Nodak has nothing to worry about when it comes to tree clearing. He or she would be wrong. It is true we have fewer trees in North Dakota than they have in Wisconsin. To us, however, it seems like all of our trees are sitting in power line right-of-way. This, of course, is not true, but we do in fact have a significant amount of tree interference problems throughout the thousands of miles of overhead lines we own. Also, since trees are more scarce in North Dakota, most people don’t like seeing even one of them cut down unless it is absolutely necessary. These issues, coupled with the wet cycle we have experienced in this region in recent years, have compounded our tree clearance problem.

On July 2, we experienced high winds that were especially bad in Ramsey and Walsh Counties. For most of the day, we had extensive line outages that affected over 1,500 accounts. Restoration of power was very expensive, but would have been more costly had it happened two days later during the holiday. In most cases, outages were caused by tree branches falling into our power lines, either causing a line breaker to open or actually breaking the conductor. This experience was a reminder of how important it is for us to diligently clean trees that are in close proximity to our lines.

There are three fundamental reasons electric utilities must clear trees from power line right-of-way. First, there is a danger to the public when trees grow around power lines. The potential of an accidental electrocution is present under these conditions. Second, service reliability is reduced substantially when trees are within falling distance of a power line. Only a small branch can break off and cause an outage with subsequent inconvenience for many customers served by that line. Third, line outages and line damages from trees falling into power lines can be expensive to repair. You as a member/owner of the cooperative pay for these costs in your electric rate.

We understand we are not always popular when we arrive to clear the right-of-way under our power lines. However, because of the above three reasons, we really don’t have a choice in the matter. Some would suggest we simply put these lines underground. This solution is also very expensive, and most people would not want to pay the high electric rates which would result. Our mission is to deliver electricity reliably, safely, and at as low cost as possible. To accomplish this mission, we need to do the unpopular act of removing trees from under our power lines.