Protecting eagles, hawks and other wildlife from electrocution has become an increasingly higher priority for utility companies across the U.S. But it’s not cheap.
Since 2017, La Plata Electric Association, which provides electricity to about 46,000 customers in Southwest Colorado, has spent $800,000 a year to place protective equipment on its transformers to reduce the risk of electrocuting wildlife.
Justin Talbot, manager of operations for LPEA, said this week that tens of thousands of transformers have been converted. The plan, he said, is to have the entire system retrofitted with the specialized equipment by the end of 2020.
“We didn’t really have an uptick of loss of life, but we did recognize we needed to update our system and protect the birds and environment as best we can,” he said. “So we took it upon ourselves to be proactive and get it done.”
It’s not easy to pin down the exact number of birds that die from electrocution from grid infrastructure. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts that mortality rate somewhere between 900,000 to 14 million migratory birds a year.
A bird is at risk of electrocution when it simultaneously touches two energized parts of equipment, typically when it is flying on or off a distribution pole and its wings are spread.
One of the most proven and cost-effective approaches, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, is to place a type of plastic cover on the electrified utility pole.
Talbot said it takes about 15 to 30 minutes for a crew to retrofit the piece of equipment, which requires power to temporarily be shut off to the customer. Six people are working on the LPEA project, he said.
“We just want to be a steward and not get into a situation where it becomes a problem,” he said. “You hear horror stories of other co-ops or electric utility companies that did not address this, and they got big fines.”
Eagles and other migratory birds are protected by federal law, and a utility company may be on the hook for fines and other penalties if it is found responsible for deaths.
Talbot said LPEA has never been fined for killing a migratory bird. But, there are extreme examples around the country.
In 2009, for instance, PacifiCorp was fined more than $1.4 million and ordered to pay for an additional $9.1 million in repairs to its system, after federal investigations found the company’s electrical distribution and transmissions facilities killed more than 230 eagles in Wyoming.
Federal investigations determined that PacifiCorp, one of the largest utility providers in the West, failed to use readily available measures to address avian electrocutions.
“When companies refuse to be proactive and don’t undertake readily available measures to prevent the deaths of eagles and other migratory birds, we’ll seek criminal charges,” Dominic Domenici with the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement at the time. “With mounting pressures on these species and their habitat, we simply cannot allow industry to kill birds when proven measures exist that can greatly reduce power line electrocutions.”
By the 1970s, hunting, habitat loss and agricultural pesticides took a significant hit on raptor populations across the country. In Colorado, for instance, only one bald eagle nest was documented in a 1974 study.
Migratory birds have been protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916, which includes more than 1,000 species. But the rising environmental movement in the 1970s and into the 1980s placed a greater focus on electric lines.
Over the years, bird populations have rebounded. In Colorado, the number of bald eagle nests documented jumped to 200 in 2017. However, the species is still at risk.
Daly Edmunds, policy and outreach director for the National Audubon’s Rockies office, said the loss of even just one raptor can have a significant impact on the overall population. Raptors can live for decades and generally reproduce later in life, she said.
“So there has to be extra care when ensuring you don’t have losses to raptor populations,” she said.
Daly commended LPEA’s proactive approach to upgrading its transmission lines. She said preventing avian electrocution is an increasing priority, especially as the demand for energy increases, resulting in a push into rural areas. And, she added, there’s another layer of risk from renewables, like solar and wind, coming online.
“All of these changes on the landscape need to be thought through carefully to minimize the impact on wildlife,” she said.
LPEA’s Talbot said the association is always trying to mitigate its impact to wildlife, especially birds, often moving eagle nests at risk and building roosts in safer places.
LPEA’s project will also protect the system, as birds can cause outages. It also allows crews to monitor the system for any necessary repairs or maintenance.
“Eight hundred thousand dollars a year seems significant, but when you’re talking about the possible fines, and providing reliability and safety to co-op members, it’s a really low number,” he said.