Utilities on the Front Lines of Environmental Stewardship

by Linda Blair, ITC Holdings Corp.

More than many other industries, utility companies exemplify environmental stewardship. Power lines, particularly the high-voltage lines transmitting massive amounts of electricity across huge swaths of land, must coexist with the great outdoors.

Managing our country’s high-voltage power grid carries far-ranging environmental responsibility spanning the lifecycle of a transmission line. From planning and siting processes through construction and maintenance activities, utilities must ensure the safe and reliable delivery of power in a responsible way that helps protect land, water and species.

ITC’s environmental stewardship activities are driven by an ISO-14,001-based environmental management system across our operations. These regulated standards provide a framework for setting goals for environmental improvement; developing policies, procedures and work practices to meet those goals; evaluating performance, developing corrective and preventive actions and performing management reviews.

Planning and Siting

When planning transmission projects, ITC includes environmental assessments for wetlands, threatened and endangered species and other sensitive habitats. By including these factors at the front end in a transmission line route analysis, ITC can adjust the placement of the line and structures to avoid or limit the environmental impact.

ITC collaborates with organizations in Iowa and Michigan to create natural transmission corridors featuring native plants.

For example, we discovered that the proposed route for our 122-mile greenfield KETA line linking eastern and western Kansas passed through a breeding ground for the lesser prairie chicken. This medium-sized, gray-brown species of grouse occurs in scattered populations in short-grass prairie in the southwestern quarter of Kansas. In an effort to preserve the bird’s breeding grounds, ITC developed an appropriate environmental mitigation and accommodation plan in cooperation with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks that included converting approximately 1,200 acres of privately-owned land in south-central Kansas into lesser prairie chicken habitat. The 345-kV KETA project entered service in 2012, facilitating the integration of wind energy throughout the region.

Line rebuild projects in rural wetlands can pose particular environmental challenges. In west Michigan, we needed to replace five 138 kV lines running through 4.5 miles of wetlands on deteriorated wood H-frames. Before line work could begin, crews had to reconstruct an old access road and install three temporary bridges over waterways. The five lines were consolidated onto three sets of double-circuit steel monopoles, leaving room for a future sixth circuit. Because wetlands regulations restrict the digging and installation of foundations, caissons for the towers had to be sunk directly into the ground using a hydraulic vibration process. The five lines were returned to service in 2011.

Construction and Recycling

Rebuilding hundreds of miles of old transmission infrastructure poses the challenge of how to properly handle the retired components. ITC decommissioned and recycled an estimated 6 million pounds of equipment from the electric transmission network last year alone, including circuit breakers, transformers and other metals. That’s equal to a fleet of 280 school buses-worth of metal. We also recycled more than 225,000 gallons of oil last year.

Wooden transmission poles are recyclable, too. ITC this past summer donated 10 cedar poles from decommissioned power structures to the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) to use as bat poles serving the habitat of the Indiana long-eared bat, a federally endangered species. The poles are being installed in two locations where the IDOT has woodland and wetland mitigation projects.

Also this past summer, ITC partnered with the Huron River Watershed Council, Southeast Michigan Osprey Watch, Audubon Society and Ann Arbor Parks to increase the number of osprey in the region. We repurposed decommissioned cedar transmission poles into two osprey nest platforms, which were installed in the watershed in July. ITC has active partnerships with five watershed conservation groups in Michigan.

Proper handling of emissions from substation equipment is another ITC focus. We voluntarily joined forces with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) SF6 (sulfur hexafluoride) Emission Reduction Partnership for Electric Power Systems in 2005. ITC joined the partnership to institute an industry standard for reporting its emissions; to establish inventory tracking of its SF6 use; and to work in collaboration with other industry partners and the EPA to develop and improve gas handling and maintenance programs. In recognition of these efforts, the EPA presented its SF6 Team Leadership Award to ITC in 2012.

Operations and Maintenance

An ever-present reality to us as the country’s largest independent transmission company is that trees and high-voltage power lines can be a hazardous combination. To prevent events like the Northeast Blackout of 2003, vegetation management needs to be a key component of any utility’s operations and maintenance program. Selective removal of incompatible species in urban, suburban and rural transmission corridors is the cornerstone of our integrated vegetation management program. These efforts make space for grasses, wildflowers and low-growing shrubs to thrive.

Foresters and other trained field staff routinely inspect our corridors, identify both appropriate and incompatible species on a site-by-site basis and recommend suitable management methods in the greenways. We favor the removal of incompatible trees over trimming because trees that are trimmed can produce aggressive new growth. This is especially hazardous during hot summer months when transmission lines sag due to the energy load they carry.

In addition to the objective of maintaining safe and reliable service, responsible vegetation management can result in diverse, stable, natural greenways under and adjacent to transmission corridors, with less environmental disturbance. For example, in 2010, ITC began partnering with Stony Creek Metropark, a 4,500-acre, multi-use recreational park north of Detroit, to manage wildlife habitat in ITC’s transmission corridor passing through the park. Our vegetation management plan in the park focuses on the removal of invasive woody and herbaceous species, and the re-establishment and seeding of native prairie grasses and wildflowers. The Stony Creek project is among 10 ITC environmental conservation efforts certified by the Wildlife Habitat Council, which promotes and certifies habitat conservation and management on corporate lands nationally through partnerships and education.

ITC is lending similar support toward helping states address declines in natural lands and habitats. To help Iowa address its increasing loss of native prairie lands, ITC over-seeded three electric transmission line corridors in the Cedar Rapids area in late 2014, covering about 42 acres. The plantings feature native grasses, wildflowers and broadleaf native plants. Well-established prairie grasses will help prevent various types of invasive trees from taking root and potentially growing into the power lines.

Elsewhere in Iowa, we are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies on ways to deter eagles from coming into accidental contact with transmission lines, by installing bird diverters on lines.

Michigan also is dealing with a declining natural feature-lakeplain prairie lands. We began partnering with The Nature Conservancy in 2013 in a multi-year effort to restore these lands in southeast Michigan, including some found along ITC transmission line corridors. Restoration involves eliminating invasive plant species that crowd out the original prairie and are detrimental to wildlife. This effort helps restore ecosystem functions, improve and increase habitat for rare insects, plants and animals and increase flora and fauna diversity.

In our Facilities

Our commitment to the environment extends to our workplaces, with waste reduction efforts underway at several ITC facilities. By removing wood, cardboard, paper and plastic from the general waste streams and recycling these materials, we have reduced the average volume of material sent from our warehouses to landfills by 50 percent over the past two years. At two warehouses, we now compact and send waste that cannot be recycled to energy recovery facilities, converting what trash remains into electricity.

An integrated vegetation management program begins with keeping trees away from power lines.

Additionally, employees at our corporate headquarters in Novi, Michigan, have embraced their own waste reduction effort. An audit conducted by our employee volunteer Green Team showed that about 55 percent of the waste generated onsite-much of which could be recycled-was going to a landfill. The audit led to a program to achieve zero landfill waste from the building by a goal year of 2016. Among other efforts, our Green Team rolled out a program to make recycling easier in the building and is studying food waste composting and a waste-to-energy stream to achieve this goal.

Collaboration and Best Practices

As evidenced, the work of our industry carries great environmental responsibility from multiple perspectives. Few companies and industries operate as close to the landscape as we utilities do, so let’s continue to exchange ideas as we all strive for the best approaches to environmental stewardship.


Linda Blair is executive vice president and chief business unit officer at ITC Holdings Corp.

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