How Duke Energy keeps trees off power lines

How Duke Energy keeps trees off power lines

Jericho Belcher shows us what it's like to be a vegetation management specialist

It can be hard to tell the difference between a healthy tree and one that’s not doing so well, but Jericho Belcher knows what to look for. He’s a certified arborist, North Carolina registered forester and a vegetation management specialist for Duke Energy.

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Trees and other plants are a leading cause of power outages, so his job is to find the trees that could cause trouble.

Sometimes the trees must be removed while others are pruned to comply with federal regulations for power transmission. It can be a contentious topic because people love trees – they provide environmental benefits and natural beauty – but Belcher’s mission is to leave as many trees as possible and address customers’ concerns while meeting his obligation to provide safe and reliable electricity.

Belcher manages several crews in North Carolina, and he took over Duke Energy’s Instagram account (@Duke_Energy) for a behind-the-scenes look at a day in their life as they maintain vegetation near high-voltage power lines.

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In addition to a forestry degree from North Carolina State University and more than a decade of experience in the field, Belcher is a platoon sergeant with one of the North Carolina National Guard’s heavy equipment transportation companies. This experience is useful at Duke Energy because the job takes his crews from climbing trees in suburban neighborhoods to off-roading in remote power line rights-of-way.

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When they’re not using heavy equipment, they’re walking – crews inspect easy-to-access areas like substations by foot to make sure limbs and shrubs aren’t reaching into the fenced area. Keeping vegetation away from these barriers helps prevent animals from using limbs as a bridge onto the equipment.

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Belcher’s teams focus on transmission lines, which are the highest voltage lines on the grid. Much of the transmission system isn’t noticeable from homes and roads, but sometimes it is. When lines are close to homes, like this one, crews talk to customers about the work being done so they understand why trees are trimmed or removed.

Sometimes, homeowners are unhappy with the way trees look after trimming, but Duke Energy crews trim trees in a way that promotes tree health and influences the tree to grow back with fewer limbs and away from power lines. If they trimmed based on aesthetics alone, the tree could grow back weaker and susceptible to disease.  

“It may not look fantastic right now, but the tree will continue to grow for years to come,” Belcher said, “and it will look good again in a year or two.”

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On large tracts of remote power lines, giant pieces of equipment help the crew work safely and efficiently. Federal regulations require Duke Energy to keep trees a certain distance from transmission lines so they won’t fall on the line or get close enough to cause an outage.

One vehicle has a 75-foot telescopic boom with a saw attached to work on hard-to-reach trees. These tracked vehicles have less ground pressure than vehicles with tires, so they do less damage to the environment, too.

Preventative maintenance like this can help reduce damage during severe weather. Crews are scheduled to visit each section of the grid at set intervals. If there are trees that need trimming before they’re set to return, Belcher’s team will make a special trip. 

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So that’s a day with forester Jericho Belcher, whose job is to keep trees healthy and away from power lines.

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