Powering Strong Communities

Public power utilities actively work to support pollinators in a variety of ways

Public power utilities across the country are working hard on biodiversity efforts in their communities and one example of these efforts can be found in their support of pollinator populations.

Birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, small mammals, and bees are pollinators, the Pollinator Partnership notes on its website. Somewhere between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants on the earth need help with pollination, according to the partnership.

In the power sector, transmission rights-of-way and solar facilities offer prime real estate for the cultivation and support of pollinator populations.

The Bonneville Power Administration on its website notes that the area beneath a transmission line right-of-way “may merely look like low-growing shrubs and grasses to you, but to a pollinator, those wildflowers are shelter, food and even a place to lay eggs.”

The federal power marketing administration notes that the way it manages the plants in its transmission rights-of-way “is critical to minimizing the risk of tree encroachment on power lines and has the secondary benefit of providing habitat that benefits not only the pollinators but also the Northwest ecosystem.”

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), a California public power utility, is involved in various pollinator efforts including several research projects.

One research project involves funding and technical support for a pollinator habitat demonstration with educational signage adjacent to a bike trail.

The public power utility is also a part of a collaborative effort with the Utility Arborist Association, the United States Forest Service, PG&E, and scientists at the Sonoma State University Center for Environmental Inquiry to evaluate the impact of integrated vegetation management on plant communities and wildlife diversity.

According to SMUD’s website, the study is taking place in an El Dorado County transmission corridor that was burned in the 2014 King Fire. Research on multiple test plots, including vegetation management cost and revegetation success, is ongoing.

SMUD has also come up with a conceptual plan for the integration of pollinator-friendly native grasses and wildflowers, grazing management, and soil carbon storage for a utility-scale solar project.

Operational programs at SMUD to support pollinators include its Shade Tree Program, which provides customers with an array of flowering trees that provide nectar and shelter for a variety of pollinators.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, Logansport Municipal Utilities (LMU) in Indiana is another public power utility working to increase biodiversity.

Inovateus Solar began construction of Logansport’s first solar power plant earlier this year. Financed by a 30-year power purchase agreement (PPA), the solar installation will reduce LMU’s carbon emissions, help to stabilize energy costs for LMU’s customers, and also host a bee and butterfly habitat that will benefit agriculture in the surrounding area.

Inovateus has also designed a 45-foot vegetation buffer around the solar array. The buffer will feature native Northern Indiana trees, plants, and more than 100 tulip trees donated by the community. Inovateus has partnered with Fresh Energy and the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund to plant a pollinator seed mix under and around the solar panels instead of traditional ground cover. The pollinator mix will cultivate honeybees and butterflies that local farmers rely on for pollinating their crops.

In New England, earlier this year, Vermont Public Power Supply Authority (VPPSA) and Encore Renewable Energy announced that construction began on a new solar array in Morrisville, Vermont. Encore also evaluated the potential for establishing pollinator-friendly wildflower groundcover to provide support for bees, butterflies, and other creatures.

Chad Ferrell, CEO of Encore Renewable Energy, stated, “We have a goal of delivering 100% of our projects with either pollinator-friendly ground cover or for dual land use with agrivoltaics (generally sheep farming in our neck of the woods). Given the current state of both of those markets, we are more focused on pollinators at this point but are looking into both. The next batch of projects we are delivering for the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority will all be finished with pollinator-friendly ground cover. This portfolio includes six projects with a total capacity of 13 MW and 60 acres of ground cover.”

In 2016, Chris Schoenherr, Director of Agency and Government Relations and Chief External Affairs Officer at the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (SMPPA), detailed in a blog for the American Public Power Association how SMPPA organized a two-pronged effort to establish monarch habitat and raise awareness in member communities.

Currently, SMMPA member communities have established 68 monarch “waystations,” ranging from 100 to 1,000 square feet, on utility, municipal, or community property. Each site was planted by either utility employees or community groups and includes signage describing the program. Also, nearly 11,700 seed packages have been distributed to customers in member communities to provide a simple, no-cost way for citizens to join the effort by establishing monarch habitat on their property.

Schoenherr stated, “In 2018, SMMPA established a 3-acre prairie, including pollinator habitat, at its new Owatonna Energy Station. In 2018-2019 we released about 90 monarchs from caterpillars we found on the habitat at our urban headquarters. This year (2020) has been a little tougher. We assisted a group in Princeton to establish a larger pollinator habitat on a riverfront park.”

According to a recent T&D World article, City Utilities (CU) of Springfield in Missouri is highlighting the importance of pollinators through a community showcase and habitats.

Scott Gunzenhauser, Supervisor-Vegetation Management at CU, told APPA that, “The showcase garden in front of our viewing platform has grown nicely and it in itself has attracted some interesting pollinators including the hummingbird hawk-moth and monarch caterpillars. In addition to the caterpillars showing up, we have partnered again with some of the Master Naturalists in our area and they have given us some chrysalis’s to hatch out and we have them doing that on that property as well and have set up a time-lapse camera to capture them coming out.  So far we have hatched out 4 chrysalis’s, two of which were on an invasive pear tree in our plot to which we now call our ’Labor and Delivery’ tree.” 

City Utilities of Springfield has also treated 10 acres at two separate City Utilities locations of previously mowed areas with herbicide and has burned two of the eight sections as a control to see how that works. The utility will be planting that 10 acres this winter. 

Nebraska’s Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) is currently in its third year of establishing native grasses and wildflowers on over 305 acres across several sites through its Prairie in Progress initiative. The objective of the project is to drive more sustainable landscapes on the district’s properties to lower maintenance costs and increase plant and wildlife diversity including pollinators. OPPD partnered with Save the Monarchs organization to achieve this goal.

Chris Vrtiska, Wildlife Nature Resource Specialist at OPPD, stated, “Establishing or restoring prairies is a long and sometimes difficult process which can often take three to five years. OPPD has experienced successes on the majority of its acres and it has some sites that are struggling to establish. It has been a learning experience for all the staff involved in the project.”

Of the 305 acres in the initial phase of the project, there are approximately 75 acres that for one reason or another have struggled to establish themselves. Currently, OPPD has a management strategy to improve those acres.

“While prescribed burns are a very valuable tool in establishing and managing prairie restorations, many of our sites that are struggling are in urban interface locations which preclude the use of fire as a management tool. Working with Save the Monarchs organizations and other experts, we have developed plans using an herbicide in the place of fire to control unwanted vegetation and promoting the growth of desirable species.”

Another Nebraska public power utility, Lincoln Electric System (LES), recently resolved to create opportunities to engage in pollinator issues with co-workers, customers, and the Lincoln community, noted Melissa Landis, an environmental specialist at LES.

Toward that end LES initiated ground preparations this year to convert a four acre greenspace at a local generating station from cold season grasses to pollinator habitat,” she said in an email.

On the four acre site “we collaborated with Save our Monarchs on a site plan to oversee the conversion process, establish some baseline pollinator monitoring data, and we look forward to seeding the site with a pollinator-friendly seed mix yet this fall.” 

LES is looking forward to participating in National Pollinator Week (June 21-27, 2021) to celebrate pollinators and spread the word about ways to protect them, she said.

National Pollinator Week 2020 (June 22-28) was the thirteenth consecutive year of bringing greater awareness to the issue of pollinator conservation since the Pollinator Partnership founded the initiative in 2007.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) launched a statewide pollinator initiative. Maura Balaban at NYPA, stated, “Work on the rollout of this initiative at the Niagara Power Project was postponed due to emergent work taking place is the same general area as the pollinator field. The joint initiative between NYPA’s Sustainability and Rights-of-Way Maintenance departments is currently scheduled to begin later this year.”

APPA and several of its members (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Bonneville Power Administration, Salt River Project and the Tennessee Valley Authority) sponsored EPRI’s “Power for Pollinators” documentary. The film describes how electric power companies can support pollinator conservation while balancing affordable, reliable, and safe electricity. 

In addition, several public power utilities are involved with the “Power-in-Pollinators” initiative.

The initiative aims to promote and support pollinator conservation among utilities. The partnership shares the latest scientific findings, case studies and tools to assist with the integration of pollinator-friendly practices into utility vegetation, facilities and land management.

Launched in 2017, the initiative is now the largest collaboration for electric power companies to work together on pollinator research.

Public power utilities involved in the initiative are NYPA, LADWP, SMUD, SRP, LES, BPA and NPPD.