Power lines offer environmental benefits, according to study

March 6, 2017 by Sheila Foran, University of Connecticut
Power lines offer environmental benefits, according to study
David Wagner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, stands on a transmission right of way in Thompson, Conn., showing springtime foliage. Credit: David Wagner

Power lines, long considered eyesores or worse, a potential threat to human health, actually serve a vital role in maintaining the health of a significant population, according to new research out of the University of Connecticut.

The corridors that crisscross New England's rolling landscape are home to native plant and animal life that require the type of habitat maintained beneath the power lines, according to David Wagner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Particularly in regions of the Northeast with high human population density, the power lines are vital to the conservation of hundreds of species, as documented in two recent studies by Wagner. One was published this month in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, and another is forthcoming in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

"All manner of vertebrate and invertebrate life as well as a wide range of wild flowers and other native plants flourish there," says Wagner.

If the semi-open landscape – areas of grass and weeds, shrubs, and young forest growth – in the transmission corridors was not managed as it is now by power companies, the land would eventually turn into dense forest with heavy cover and limited sunlight, unsuitable for many of those species, Wagner says.

In one study, Wagner and co-authors examined bee species along a in Southeastern Connecticut over a two-year period. They identified roughly 50 percent of the state's bee species there, including one previously thought to be extinct in the United States, the Epeoloides pilosula, which had not been found in this country since 1960.

The landscape is also the ideal habitat for species such as the New England Cottontail rabbit, says Wagner. While the population of its more adaptive cousin, the Eastern Cottontail, has not been impacted by development in the Northeast, the New England Cottontail occupies less than a fifth of the area it once called home.

Birds such as the American woodcock and indigo bunting, reptiles including the wood and box turtles, and many insect species, are also dependent on the open, sunny habitats that are typical of the transmission line corridors.

Wagner's related investigation measured plant diversity and cover along an 89-mile transmission line corridor.

Researchers found that the richness of plant life along transmission lines was significantly higher than in the adjacent wooded areas. They documented 326 plant species in power line plots, more than twice the number found in woodland plots.

In particular, eight common heath species important to several finicky – those with narrow preferences in pollen sources – were significantly more abundant in power line plots than in the nearby woods.

Other plants more abundant along the power lines included such commonly known flower species as goldenrod, asters, daisies, and sunflowers, as well as a variety of herbs and shrubs that provide much of the late-season pollen and nectar for bees, beetles, moths, and butterflies.

Northeast Utilities, the company that owns and manages approximately 43,000 acres throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, created a land trust in 2012 to promote the preservation of open spaces in New England.

NU's manager of transmission vegetation management, Anthony Johnson '80 (CAHNR), says the company works cooperatively with organizations such as the Audubon Society and the New England Wildflower Association, as well as providing support for academic research such as Wagner's.

"When I first started this job, I was always looking up – at the trees and the wires – making sure there was nothing to interfere with the ," Johnson says. "Now, I also find myself looking down – watching for turtles and snakes and wildflowers and seeing how abundant they are."

Explore further: Power lines offer environmental benefits

More information: David L. Wagner et al. Vegetation composition along a New England transmission line corridor and its implications for other trophic levels, Forest Ecology and Management (2014). DOI: 10.1016/j.foreco.2014.04.026

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1.3 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2017
All power lines should be underground. They say it's "too expensive" to do this so the lines all end up "in the air" for all to enjoy all the time. Here's the kicker for me. If the lines were underground we would never suffer the "weather caused" power outages which are now a regular occurrence during storms. The weather is getting more violent each year and there will be even more outages on a regular basis. You can not convince me that the cost of the "repairs" is cheaper than starting out with the lines underground. The maintenance costs would be far less and the savings from this and reduced/eliminated outages would quickly recover the costs of "going under". Just another example of money today from savings on installations is more important than money spent tomorrow for the repairs.The large power providers deserve their ultimate fate of everyone being self sufficient in power using their own solar panels. The panels are getting more efficient every day and so are the batteries.
1 / 5 (4) Mar 13, 2017
"You can not convince me that the cost of the "repairs" is cheaper than starting out with the lines underground."

Okay, but it is true.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2017
All power lines should be underground

Well, there's arguments for and against this, and you also need to consider geography. You mentioned a number of valid reasons for below ground lines. Here's some for the other side:

Consider earthquake prone regions. Or flood prone regions. There you may want to have your lines above ground. In this day and age we should also consider sabotage. While above-ground lines aren't immune to sabotage they can be fixed a lot easier/faster.
Upgrades are also a lot more expensive for underground lines.

I think it must be decided on a case-by-case basis what is the most sensible approach.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2017
I've agreed with your statements for some time, but the fact is buried power lines are not immune to damage. When I was a teenager our house caught fire due to the buried power supply cable being pinched by rocks that moved in the ground. Of course, the repairs required would be fewer, but the cost of each repair would be more - not to mention the replacement rather than the repair cost.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2017
All power lines should be underground.

Transmission lines? BWHAHAHAHAH. Silly KelDude! Want to know the failure mode of a below grade power line? Hint: It's explosive. VERY explosive. That's IF you can get insulation that will work worth a damn.

As for Distribution, it's expensive enough to work on above ground powerlines. Put them below ground and you'll have a hell of a time locating and repairing them when they fail. That is, unless you're dealing with a medium voltage line. Then you just look for the explosion. Such things have happened in posh Georgetown in DC. The explosions send manhole covers weighing over 100 pounds flying several stories in to the air.

Let's not do it. No, seriously, DON'T DO IT. It doesn't age well and it won't be maintained. You'll be installing an underground time bomb that is almost guaranteed to be hazardous for your grandkids.

Your grandparents knew what they were doing. Think carefully before dismissing their wisdom.
not rated yet Mar 14, 2017
While above-ground lines aren't immune to sabotage they can be fixed a lot easier/faster.

one very expensive long term possible policy to prevent that being a problem would be to make special access tunnels for laying down within all underground power lines so to make easy maintenance as will as making them immune form weather damage.
I personally find that a very appealing idea but, unfortunately, the setup costs would be just astronomical! Perhaps it would pay for itself EVENTUALLY within, say, about a ~million years but perhaps that is just far TOO "long term". Pity.
not rated yet Mar 14, 2017
so to make easy maintenance as will as making them immune form weather damage.

Weather damage is a tricky thing. Heavy rain/flooding is weather damage. Flooding can lead to shifts in subterranean structures (cave-ins, bulging, landslides) which can affect subterranean power lines. Deep frost/thaw cycles can lead to cracks in any tunnels which may lead to seepage. Changing groundwater levels can lead to corrosion. Plant roots are not to be underestimated, either (ever seen how easily they crack concrete sidewalks?). Above-ground powerlines are largely immune to these particular effects.

I like the below-ground idea a lot - simply for the aesthetic effect (and I don't think the 'habitat' argument made in the article is particularly pertinent). But it is by no means a clear cut decision between the two.

Ideal, to me, would be local production and storage - without any power infrastructure at all.
1 / 5 (4) Mar 14, 2017
Just look up the cost for burying a long HV transmission line.

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