ST. ALBANS — Acrobatic squirrels and high-flying birds. Both are a challenge for local utility companies.

Peter Rossi, chief operating officer of Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC), said animals cause 30-35 percent of the utility’s power outages, second to trees or branches falling on power lines, which causes 48 percent of outages.

The same is true for Enosburg Falls’ electric utility, according to village manager Jonathan Elwell.

In Swanton, animals caused 21 outages in 2018, according to village manager Reg Beliveau, impacting 424 out of 3,700 customers.

Outages caused by animals are usually localized, Beliveau said, not impacting a large number of customers.

But that isn’t always the case.

“One summer we had a squirrel get into our substation,” said Elwell. “That one little squirrel took out our entire service area for about an hour.”

“They are a nuisance anywhere they exist,” he said, of squirrels. “They’re very athletic… they’re very good contortionists as well.”

Interactions between squirrels and power lines rarely turn out well for the squirrel. “They’re toast,” said Elwell.

To keep squirrels out of substations, utility companies have begun to add small wheels to lines. Squirrels running along the line will try to run across the wheel only to have it turn beneath him, causing the squirrel to fall off, explained Rossi. The wheels are used on lines running in and out of substations to prevent the squirrels from following the lines into the station.

Enosburg Falls Village Manager Jon Elwell during a village trustee meeting. According to Elwell, squirrels and birds have been directly responsible for outages in Enosburg Falls. (Messenger File Photo)

Birds are also a challenge, especially in the spring when they begin to nest.

“We do have seasonal osprey issues,” said Rossi.

The osprey drop sticks onto potential nesting sites, he explained. And because osprey like to nest up high, those sticks often land on wires, where they may cause a short if they make contact with the right two lines, Rossi explained.

Similarly, because osprey’s wing spans are so broad they can also close a circuit between two wires with just their wings.

In summer months, two VEC crews travel the Lake Champlain Islands twice per day to knock the ospreys’ sticks off of the lines.

As part of an effort to mitigate outages, VEC uses old poles to create osprey nesting platforms. Mated pairs of osprey return to the same sites each year to nest. So each year VEC moves the platform farther from the electric lines, gradually drawing the birds away from the lines. “They do a lot of this out west with bald eagles,” said Rossi. “We mitigate it in the most humane way possible.”

VEC works with the state on its mitigation efforts. We “make sure we’re doing what the biologists want to see,” said Rossi.

Small birds also pose their own challenges. Although utilities use covers to prevent them from getting to vulnerable parts of the lines, the birds can find ways to get their heads inside looking for insects, explained Beliveau.

Covers have gotten better at keeping birds – and their beaks – out, said Rossi, but it takes time to get the new covers onto the lines.

VEC, for example has more than 50,000 poles and 20,000 transformers.

The company is in the first year of a five year maintenance plan which will include updated animal mitigation, explained Rossi. In addition, Vermont utilities are required to try and reduce outages on their ten worst performing circuits each year. “A lot of the mitigation on those worst performing circuits is animal mitigation,” he said.

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