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 committed stewards of the ecological richness of our geographies, we take steps to ensure wildlife and habitat protection.
For example, the developer for AEP’s North Central Wind Energy Facilities project is conducting wildlife studies in accordance with all applicable law and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines and USFWS Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance for siting turbines. This is to minimize potential adverse impacts to wildlife and other environmental resources.
- Avian Protection
For more than three decades, the utility industry, conservation groups, wildlife resource agencies and others have collaborated 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.
We consider avian protection when we design and engineer new facilities. When birds interact with electrical equipment and cause outages, it affects our customers, too. For example, a benefit of the design of the BOLD® transmission line is fewer occurrences of nesting and reductions in both collisions and electrocutions because of the lower tower height, the curved arm and the more compact design of the lines compared to traditional transmission lines and structures.
AEP manages interactions between birds and power lines through a systemwide plan across our 11-state service territory. Today, our primary challenge is larger species, which 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 – Educate and train employees on compliance requirements to proactively prevent bird collisions and electrocutions.
- Construction design standards and mortality reduction measures – Design new lines and facilities with bird safety in mind.
- Nest management and avian enhancement options – Adopt the use of safety tactics to keep birds away from wires such as installing a de-energized pole for bird nesting.
- Avian reporting systems and risk assessment methodologies – Continuously improve our monitoring and reporting capabilities.
- Public education – Promote the need for migratory bird and habitat conservation, working cooperatively with federal and state agencies and nonprofits.
In addition to our Avian Protection Plan, AEP is committed to adherence with all federal, state and local laws as they pertain to responsibly siting, constructing and operating renewable energy technologies, whether developed by us or purchased from another entity. This includes compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, as well as adherence to the USFWS’s voluntary Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines. As renewable energy continues to evolve and more is understood regarding potential unforeseen impacts to the environment and wildlife, AEP will adapt to avoid and mitigate impacts.
- Habitat Conservation Plans
AEP’s grid modernization program requires balancing business needs with environmental protection. With the magnitude of our construction activities, it is conceivable that we will come into contact with, or potentially have an impact on, a range of species. One way we are addressing this is by working with the USFWS to establish Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP).
In 2019, we began implementing an HCP across several transmission regions for the American burying beetle, an endangered insect with habitats across several states in our service territory. This multiyear HCP has allowed us to use pre-approved practices through a regional, programmatic approach to minimize impacts to the beetle and its habitat and to encourage its recovery. The HCP covers portions of Arkansas, Oklahoma and northern Texas where AEP currently has operations or the potential for future development.
We also continued development of a 30-year, systemwide multispecies HCP. 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). Administered by the USFWS, the HCP will enable transmission construction activities that could impact listed species, such as the Indiana bat, to proceed without case-by-case agency consultation, as long as the practices and mitigation methods described in the plan are followed. The plan will cover construction activities in our 11 states.
We are working closely with wildlife protection agencies in each of our states to ensure the HCP is consistent with their goals and regulations and covers the species affected by our work. In 2020, 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. After finding it appropriate to review whether the monarch butterfly needs protection, a decision is due by the end of 2020 on listing it as threatened or endangered.
During the summer, monarchs are 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, and affect our 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 the impacts of a possible listing.
As a result, we 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 possibly avoid a listing. AEP continues to coordinate with the University of Illinois-Chicago, as well as other power companies, oil and gas companies and state departments of transportation on the development of the collaborative monarch CCAA, which was finalized in April 2020.
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 or integrating conservation measures into new and rebuilt transmission lines, AEP takes steps to preserve the natural ecosystem as we grow our business.
- Promoting & Protecting Pollinators
Pollinators provide vital support to our natural ecosystems, including food production. The decline of pollinators has become an emerging issue of concern in recent years. A report by EPRI notes that globally, pollinators are in decline, with some scientists estimating that 40% of pollinator species may be at risk of extinction in the coming decades. At AEP, we are taking measures to protect pollinators and promote their well-being. For example, in 2019 we joined the EPRI Pollinator Program to stay informed about this important issue.
During Pollinator Week (June 17-23), 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 organized an educational lobby event at AEP’s headquarters. We provided anecdotes, photos and information on how AEP supports pollinators throughout our 11-state service territory.
AEP’s work to protect pollinators goes beyond education to actual practice in the field. While working at a transmission construction site in Columbus, Ohio, AEP employees and contractors discovered a large colony of honeybees had created a hive inside a large coaxial cable spool. To eliminate the safety risks to our employees and preserve the hive, we called an expert to safely remove and relocate the hive. Two AEP employees, who are also beekeepers, worked with the apiary owner to safely capture and relocate an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 honeybees.
- Right-of-Way Conservation
As with any construction project, AEP Transmission is responsible for the restoration of areas disturbed by project work, such as within the right-of-way around pole installations and the land under work pads, as well as the removal of access roads. This also includes planting permanent vegetation.
We are exploring the use of regionally specific native seed mixes for right-of-way applications in order to address permit compliance, site stability and the inhibition of tree regrowth. These efforts may help to reduce maintenance costs and foster good community relations.
The Native Seed Mix proof-of-concept project is a three-year evaluation that includes vegetation test plots (with regionally specific blends) in existing AEP easements at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio, as well as regions in Appalachian Power’s and Public Service of Oklahoma Company’s service territories. If sufficiently successful, native seed mixes could be used in our restoration efforts, except for areas such as farmlands, lawns and wetlands.
AEP is also exploring the use of native plant seeds for post-construction site restoration on the campus of our New Albany, Ohio, Transmission Headquarters. With help from local conservation organizations – such as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Audubon Society, National Wild Turkey Federation and Pheasants Forever – we developed seed mixes to support birds, pollinators, deer or turkey on a demonstration right-of-way plot. One of the seed mixes specifically supports solar sites, using plants that grow at a low height and reduce weed growth. As we expand our solar portfolio, these practices are important.
- Wetland and Stream Habitats
AEP’s Generation team completed three new conservation projects in 2019. In one instance, we worked with the Arkansas State Game and Fish Commission to improve fish habitats in SWEPCO Lake at the Flint Creek Plant. The team removed trees from overgrown sections of nearby woodland and secured them to the bottom of the lake to create new habitats for fish.
In 2019, the construction of a new Transmission Service Center in Columbus, Ohio, near Big Walnut Creek, became part of a local environmental restoration effort. The property was devoid of vegetation and had a stream that was rerouted, culverted and severely incised, resulting in extremely low aquatic function. By working hand-in-hand with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and City of Columbus, we were able to make significant improvements. The team restored approximately 1,800 linear feet of stream to a more natural condition, incorporated native plant species on surrounding upland areas and permanently protected a portion of the property from future development. We are currently monitoring the project mitigation success in accordance with our Army Corps permit.
The AEP Foundation donated $35,000 to the City of Port Aransas Joan & Scott Holt Paradise Pond to support the restoration and expansion of the local wetland. Paradise Pond is a freshwater wetland and important stop for migratory birds traveling down the Gulf Coast. Saltwater surge and high winds from Hurricane Harvey killed many native trees and damaged the ecosystem. Restoration of the site will give the community and tourists access to engaging with nature along the boardwalk and observation decks, which will be increasingly important as the community recovers from Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic.