New ROW program uses helicopters to trim tough terrain
It’s an attention-grabbing sight. A low-flying helicopter surfs the tree line, a column of sawblades hanging below it, spinning so fast that they kick up dust and debris. The blades then zip through thick pine limbs like a hot knife to butter.
The helicopter and its impressive sawblades belong to Southeastern Limb & Tree, a company that is now helping to keep the power on for Lynches River Electric members. Southeastern’s helicopters are being used to trim limbs that have grown too close to or are hanging over Lynches River Electric power lines in the cooperative’s rights-of-way. Right-of-way (ROW) is the area around the cooperative’s poles, lines, and equipment where tree limbs and other vegetation can compromise reliability if not maintained properly.
“It’s a great tool for Lynches River Electric’s system,” says Chris DuBose, a former lineman who is now CEO and president of Southeastern Limb and Tree. The South Carolina- based company also provides vegetation management services for other South Carolina cooperatives and utilities throughout the Southeast. “You’re in the foothills with some rugged terrain and you’ve got the areas by the lake that are difficult to trim.”
By coming from above, and guided by the skillful maneuvering of the pilot, the ten blades can reach limbs near power lines that other equipment can’t. The helicopters have trimmed areas by Lake Wateree, cutting limbs that had never been cut before, according to Lynches River Electric ROW Coordinator Don Gulledge.
“You can cut any terrain with that helicopter,” says Gulledge. “It’s true ground to sky coverage in areas where a bucket truck or a sky trim (equipment that trims using a single blade and long arm) just can’t get to.”
When freezing temperatures and high winds hit the same area, that clean right-of-way is credited for keeping outages to a minimum.
“The Brock Mill substation and the Catawba substation were probably our two worst in terms of outages because of the terrain,” says Gulledge. “There were a lot of areas we just couldn’t get to before. Since they’ve been cut, we’ve had nowhere near the number of outages there.”
Gulledge also says that the aerial program can complete certain territories five times as fast as traditional methods and doesn’t cost the cooperative more. That means savings for members, too.
While other South Carolina electric cooperatives have used Southeastern in portions of their territories, Lynches River Electric is the first cooperative in the state to maintain their entire system through an aerial ROW program. Their crews will clear nearly 400 miles of ROW this year, over half using the helicopter. They recently completed the Wolf Pond substation and have begun working in the areas served by the Jefferson substation.
Dubose says the helicopters attract attention but cautions people from getting too close.
“We know that people like to stop and watch and sometimes take videos or pictures,” says Dubose. “But that’s when accidents can happen. We encourage people to maintain a safe distance or stay inside if the helicopter is flying near them.
“The reason we’re doing this work is to keep their lights on and right-of-way is the most important factor when it comes to the number of outages,” he continues. “We’re going to go above and beyond to supply reliable power to our members.”