Many of AEP’s business decisions involve finding the right balance between environmental protection and economics. Compromises are often necessary, yet it can be difficult to please all stakeholders involved. AEP is not immune to these issues and always strives to balance the needs of our stakeholders with the need to protect the environment and keep the lights on.
In 2018, AEP authored a chapter in the book, “Sustainable Electricity II: A Conversation on Tradeoffs,” that examines how some of those tradeoffs have played out for AEP over time. The book describes the many challenges we are faced with while managing a 60,000-acre tract of land in Southeastern Ohio and how we achieved a balance between the needs of the local community and of other stakeholders. The book also includes case studies of how AEP resolves some of the toughest choices facing electric power companies today.
As we build and maintain new and existing infrastructure across our service territory, such as transmission or renewable generation facilities, we are mindful of the potential impacts we may have on wildlife. This includes species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. As careful stewards of the ecological richness of our geographies, we take the necessary steps to ensure wildlife protection. We remain committed to protecting the habitats in which we live and operate.
- Avian Protection
For more than three decades, the utility industry, conservation groups, wildlife resource agencies and others have worked together to understand why and how birds collide with or are electrocuted by power lines.
To reduce avian mortality, utilities have adopted voluntary company-specific Avian Protection Plans to mitigate the risks associated with bird interactions with electric facilities. We completed our Plan in 2013, and we continue implementing it today. The plan’s purpose is to reduce the incidences of bird electrocutions and collisions with AEP’s equipment, and to reduce the frequency of bird-caused outages.
We take avian protection into account when we design and engineer new facilities. When birds interact with electrical equipment and cause outages, it impacts service to our customers. For example, the design of the BOLD® transmission line is shorter in stature than traditional transmission lines and structures. Benefits of this design include reduced nesting because of the curved arm, and reductions in both collisions and electrocutions, which are less likely with shorter transmission towers.
AEP manages interactions between birds and power lines through a system-wide program across our 11-state service territory, where a wide variety of bird species can be found. Currently, AEP’s primary challenge is on larger species that are more likely to be electrocuted in substations and on poles, or to collide with towers and lines.
The Plan has several key components:
- Employee training and compliance – We educate our employees and provide training on compliance with all federal and state laws. Our goal is to be proactive in preventing bird collisions and electrocutions.
- Construction design standards and mortality reduction measures – We have a process to incorporate bird safety into the design of new lines and facilities.
- Nest management and avian enhancement options – We apply bird-safety tactics such as installing a dedicated de-energized pole for bird nesting or bird diverters to keep them away from wires.
- Avian reporting systems and risk assessment methodologies – We continue to improve our monitoring and reporting capabilities to allow us to be more proactive.
- Public education – We promote the need for migratory bird and habitat conservation and work cooperatively with federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations.
- Avian Conservation Efforts
In April 2018, Indiana Michigan Power Company (I&M) transmission crews worked with local conservationists to protect a nesting Red-tailed hawk that was located within a construction zone. One of the nesting platforms that we installed in various locations was occupied by Red-tailed hawks. To avoid disturbing the birds, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, our crews stopped all work within the vicinity of the platform so we could inspect the nest and determine next steps. For the transmission project to continue, we had to move the platform and the nest, which contained eggs.
We secured a State Migratory Bird Permit and contacted Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit raptor foundation from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to help us move the platform without impacting the nest. Once the platform and nest were moved, we kept an eye on it. In time, the eggs hatched and the mating pair are still using the nesting platform.
- Habitat Conservation Plans
AEP’s infrastructure modernization program requires balancing business needs with environmental protection. With the magnitude of our construction activities, it is inevitable that we will come in contact with, or potentially have an impact on, a range of species. One way we are addressing this is by working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to establish Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP).
In 2018, the USFWS finalized its environmental review and issued a permit to AEP related to the American burying beetle (ABB). This beetle is listed as endangered, and the permit and associated HCP gives us a mechanism to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The permit covers portions of Arkansas, Oklahoma and northern Texas – where AEP currently has operations or the potential for future development.
The cooperative stewardship effort with the USFWS helps AEP continue operating efficiently and provide safe, reliable electricity to our customers while assisting in the conservation of the ABB and its habitat through mitigation and minimization measures. The program aims to conserve and recover the endangered species.
We also continued development of a 30-year, system-wide multispecies HCP. Development of the HCP began in 2016 and covers several species potentially affected by our transmission construction activities. During 2018, we continued to refine the list of species covered by the plan, which currently includes five bat species, four bird species, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake and the rusty-patched bumble bee.
We are also working closely with wildlife protection agencies in each of our states to ensure the HCP will be consistent with their goals and regulations. Administered by the USFWS, the HCP will enable transmission construction activities with potential impacts to endangered species to proceed without agency consultation on a project-by-project basis. The plan will cover construction activities in all 11 states in which we currently operate.
This HCP is important because it will not only protect the covered species but also generate cost and time savings for our customers and AEP. Portions of the draft HCP are currently under review by USFWS, and we have initiated the required third-party review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In 2019, we anticipate having a complete HCP ready for public review.
- Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan
In August 2014, the USFWS received a petition to list the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) due to its notable decline in recent years. In December 2014, the agency made an initial finding that a status review was appropriate and it is currently gathering information to determine whether the monarch needs protection under the ESA, with a listing decision anticipated June 2019.
During the summer, monarchs can be found throughout the United States, particularly in areas where milkweed, their host plant, is available. Each year, monarchs undertake a multi-generational migration of thousands of miles to and from overwintering and breeding areas. These areas significantly overlap AEP’s generation and transmission network.
An ESA listing for the butterfly could affect our ability to build new or replace old infrastructure as well as impact vegetation maintenance activities. We are well-positioned to participate in an effort to manage habitat within our right-of-way (ROW) corridors to help the butterfly and avoid an endangered species listing.
As a result, we have joined a conservation initiative with the USFWS to develop a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). A CCAA is a formal agreement between the USFWS and one or more parties to address the conservation needs of a candidate species before the species becomes listed as endangered or threatened. Property managers voluntarily commit to conservation actions that will help stabilize or restore the species and avoid a listing. The University of Illinois-Chicago is coordinating the development of the collaborative monarch CCAA, which includes AEP as well as other power companies, oil and gas companies and state departments of transportation.
We value and practice environmental stewardship and conservation across our service territory. Whether through reclaiming former industrial land for outdoor recreation areas such as nature trails and campsites, to integrating conservation measures into new and rebuilt transmission lines, AEP takes steps to preserve our natural ecosystem, especially as we grow our business.
In 2018, the Generation organization included in its business plan a commitment to executing at least 25 targeted environmental stewardship activities over a five-year period. Work is underway to determine how these goals can be achieved.
- Flint Creek Eagle Watch
Southwestern Electric Power Company’s (SWEPCO) Flint Creek Power Plant in northwest Arkansas has been home to the Eagle Watch Nature Trail for almost 20 years. SWEPCO Lake, the coal-fueled power plant’s reservoir, attracts wintering American bald eagles, making it a perfect place for bird watching. The 65-acre area opened to the public in 1999, and includes a trail and pavilions to provide a safe place from which to view visiting the bald eagles and other species.
In 2018, plant staff and volunteers built a new walkway to a viewing pavilion that extends out over a marshy section of the lake frequented by eagles and many other birds and wildlife. Groups, such as the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society, visit the site to view birds and other wildlife along the quarter-mile walking trail. Current and retired plant employees lead field trips and coordinate many other activities at the site.
Flint Creek was awarded Conservation Certification by the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) in 2018, in recognition of the plant’s commitment to environmental stewardship. We received the certification for habitat enhancement programs, including tall grass prairie restoration, nesting boxes, pollinator garden landscapes and other bird habitat improvements. Flint Creek has held certification under the WHC’s Corporate Lands for Learning and Wildlife at Work programs since 2004 and 2005, respectively, and since 2016 when the two programs were combined into the Conservation Certification.
- From Mine to State Park
Beginning in 1947, surface mining operations helped convert millions of tons of coal into electric power for Ohio customers. When the mining stopped in the early 2000s, AEP began efforts to reclaim the land for public use. On July 17, 2018, AEP completed the sale of a portion of the land to create a new state park named in honor of Jesse Owens, turning it over to the State of Ohio.
At more than 13,000 acres, the Jesse Owens State Park and Wildlife Area is poised to become one of the state’s largest parks once future sales are complete, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year for fishing, canoeing, hiking, camping and other outdoor activities.
The transfer of land to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) was part of our ReCreation Land program, which seeks to ecologically reclaim Ohio land that was once surface-mined for coal. Throughout the history of this program, AEP has planted over 63 million trees, created 380 campsites and established 350 lakes and ponds stocked for fishing. As of February 2017, 58,800 acres have been reclaimed in Ohio through the program.
In 2018, we received an Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) Energy and Environment Sector Technology Transfer Award for our work in assessing the remaining property acreage set aside for the Jesse Owens State Park and Wildlife Area. Moving forward, we will apply the results of this work to estimate the potential value of remaining ReCreation Land property and to make decisions regarding the divestment of the property for future environmental mitigations and eco-asset transactions.
- Pollinator Week
During Pollinator Week (June 18-24), AEP joined other power companies across the country to raise awareness about the crucial role of pollinators in flower and plant fertilization, and about our efforts to facilitate pollinator population growth through vegetation management. We highlighted Pollinator Week through social and internal media and provided anecdotes, photos and information on how AEP supports pollinators throughout our 11-state service territory. In addition to social media posts, numerous photographs were displayed on the large interactive video screens in in our headquarters lobby in Columbus, Ohio. We will continue to participate in this effort in 2019.
- Right-of-Way Conservation
AEP partners with a number of communities and nonprofit organizations for voluntary initiatives and projects that benefit pollinators and other wildlife. As part of these ongoing efforts, we partner with EPRI to create pollinator initiatives and right-of-way (ROW) vegetation management studies. One such initiative created a biodiverse prairie habitat on a transmission ROW near Newark, Ohio, in partnership with the nonprofit Dawes Arboretum. As part of this effort, we planted native prairie species in six test plots along the ROW, which includes forest and farmland habitat. In the first year of monitoring, researchers documented rich biodiversity: nine bee species, 21 bird species and nine butterfly species. Over the next few years, researchers will continue monitoring the site’s habitat quality, erosion control and tree growth.