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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Electric Utility Good Shepherd

Air Date: Week of July 17, 1998

Trees are the answer to a lot of problems: summer heat and desertification to name a few. But trees cause some problems, too, especially for electric companies. A falling branch can bring down a power line and a tree that grows too close to electrified cable can ignite. To keep the juice flowing along the broad transmission corridors called rights-of-way, utilities regularly clear the vegetation. Like many companies, Public Service of New Hampshire used to spray saplings in these corridors with herbicides. In 1982 it starting mowing and hand cutting, at a cost of over a million dollars a year. This year it has a new idea: Grazing Power. Kim Motylewski has our report on.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Trees are the answer to a lot of problems: summer heat and desertification to name a few. But trees cause some problems, too, especially for electric companies. A falling branch can bring down a power line and a tree that grows too close to electrified cable can ignite. To keep the juice flowing along the broad transmission corridors called rights of way, utilities regularly clear the vegetation. Like many companies, Public Service of New Hampshire used to spray saplings in these corridors with herbicides. But in 1982 it started mowing and hand-cutting at a cost of over $1 million a year. And this year it has a new idea: grazing power. Kim Motylewski has our report.

(Engines; tree branches crunching)

MOTYLEWSKI: People who live beside Public Service of New Hampshire transmission corridors recognize the rumble of the brontosaurus. Every summer the big yellow tractor with a long neck and a head of spinning blades chews bushes and trees down to the ground. But this year, some abutters hear a gentler sound along the right of way.

(Someone whistles, then yodels, in the rain)

MOTYLEWSKI: Shepherd Josh Moody is moving 500 rain-soaked sheep into a portable corral beneath towering power poles.

(Moody shouts)

MOTYLEWSKI: On the shepherd's command, 2 Border Collies race behind the herd, urging it forward.

(Moody shouts)

MOTYLEWSKI: Dick Henry helps, too. He's Josh Moody's boss, and he runs an environmental consultancy called Bellwether Solutions. Mr. Henry convinced the utility to hire him to graze his sheep on this right of way. The flock will munch greenery until October on a 13-mile test plot of sloping, rock-strewn terrain in the southeastern corner of the state. Dick Henry says the animals are doing the job.

HENRY: We're real pleased that the sheep have adapted to the woody plants as well as they have. I mean they really like the oak and the cherry. Still have to convince them on the poplar and the maple, but they're getting there.

MOODY: Yeah.

O'DONNELL: Believe me, there are a lot of people who laughed when they heard this project. But we stuck with it, because it sounded like it made sense.

MOTYLEWSKI: Ellen O'Donnell is an environmental analyst for Public Service of New Hampshire. She says the company wanted an alternative to mowing its 1,800 miles of power line corridor. And with sheep, she saw environmental benefits.

O'DONNELL: And the nice thing about the grazing project is when the sheep pass through, they eat the vegetation but they do it slowly. So any animals that live in the area can easily get out of the way and come back. The other nice thing is that the sheep don't eat everything. As they move along they're hitting the species that we need to get rid of, the trees that grow tall and go into the line. But they leave the shrubs that are good cover or some of the smaller mammals and the insects, or birds that might be nesting in them.

MOTYLEWSKI: Another benefit: sheep are quiet, and neighbors have taken to the critters and the bucolic scene they set. But Ms. O'Donnell says grazing costs must compare favorably with mowing costs, about $300 per acre, if the project is continue.

(Sheep bells)

MOTYLEWSKI: Dick Henry says the flock will browse the test acreage twice this summer. Whatever saplings the animals don't eat, the shepherd will clip by hand. Then botanists will determine how well the team of man and beast killed off undesirable trees, and how resistant to reseeding grazed areas are compared with mowed ones.

HENRY: That's a big test, and it will take us 2 or 3 years before we see whether this technique is more effective than other techniques.

(Bells continue)

MOTYLEWSKI: So far the flock is munching about 3 and a half acres a day. The machines do about 5. And even if the sheep outperform the mowers in some ways, grazing won't work everywhere. The animals don't eat the soft woods like white pine, which cover about a third of the company's rights of way. Still, Dick Henry dreams of reviving sheep farming nationwide. There are hundreds of thousands of miles of utility corridors, ski slopes, and other open spaces to be kept clear. And Mr. Henry envisions a huge new demand for sheep as grazing machines.

HENRY: Instead of looking at an agricultural product as a commodity, it's an agricultural product as a service. And that's kind of a different way of looking at using livestock. But potentially a good business opportunity.

(Bells continue)

MOTYLEWSKI: If Public Service of New Hampshire is satisfied with Mr. Henry's sheep service, the project will continue next spring. And the company may soon be looking for a few more good flocks. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski in Nottingham, New Hampshire.

MOODY: (Shouts, yips) hey hey hey hey hey!

 

 

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