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, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and similar state laws. As committed stewards of the ecological richness of our geographies, we take steps to ensure wildlife and habitat 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, we voluntarily adopted a company-specific Avian Protection Plan to mitigate the risks associated with bird interactions at our facilities.
It is important for both our operations and our customers that we account for avian protection when we design and engineer new facilities and upgrade existing facilities. For example, we have installed laser technology at substations to discourage birds from flying into switches and transformers or nesting in the equipment. This technology may also be used at other substations where adjacent land use encourages avian activity.
AEP manages interactions between birds and power lines through a system-wide plan across our 11-state regulated service territory. Our primary challenge continues to be larger species, which are more likely to be electrocuted in substations and on poles or to collide with towers and lines.
In addition to our Avian Protection Plan, we are 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 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) voluntary Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines. As renewable energy continues to grow, we remain engaged with organizations such as the American Wind and Wildlife Institute (AWWI)/Wind Wildlife Research Fund and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which is conducting research on wildlife interactions with renewable energy facilities.
- Habitat Conservation Plans
Our grid modernization efforts require 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 (HCPs).
In 2019, we received an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) and began implementing the approved HCP across portions of three states for the American burying beetle (ABB). At the time the ITP was issued in 2019, the ABB was listed as endangered; however, in 2020 the listing was downgraded to threatened. The 30-year ITP/HCP allows 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 we currently have operations or the potential for future development.
We also continued development of a 30-year, system-wide multispecies HCP. This HCP is important because it will not only protect the covered species but also generate cost and time savings for AEP and our customers. A draft of the HCP is 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 regulated 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 2021, we anticipate having a complete HCP ready for public review.
The Power of Our People: Line Crew Rescues Screech Owl
Line Mechanics Zachary Doss and Jacob Jackson, along with Line Crew Supervisor Eric Janney, were working late-night storm trouble in rural Roanoke County, Virginia, when they discovered an eastern screech owl perched in the bed of their bucket truck. The area was one of several locations without power after high winds and rain affected Appalachian Power’s three-state service area. When their work was complete, the owl was still in the truck. Recognizing that it was sick or injured and unable to reach a wildlife center in the overnight hours, they placed the owl in a large cardboard box and took it with them back to the service center.
That morning, another employee took the owl to a nearby non-profit organization for treatment. Within a few weeks, the owl was healthy enough to be released back into the wild. The care from Appalachian Power’s line crew to protect wildlife while serving customers reflects our commitment to caring for each other and the environment.
- Environmental Stewardship
We value and practice environmental stewardship and conservation across our service territory. Whether through reclaiming former industrial land for outdoor recreation, such as nature trails and campsites, or integrating conservation measures into new and rebuilt transmission lines, we take steps to preserve the natural ecosystem as we grow our business.
We remain committed to following all environmental regulations and practicing environmental stewardship and compliance. At times, however, nature has its own plans, requiring a few extra steps on our part. During a wires upgrade project in Central Ohio, our crew identified an osprey nest on top of one of our utility poles. The size of an osprey nest posed a fire hazard that threatened both our equipment and the safety of the birds. Moving their nest was necessary, but, because ospreys are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, environmental rules needed to be carefully followed to prevent interfering with their migration or nesting habits. AEP’s engineering, right-of-way, environmental services and line departments developed a plan to effectively relocate the nest without disturbing the birds, enabling completion of the work. Before the nest could be relocated, a second nest appeared on a neighboring pole. The team waited another nesting season and built a new nesting platform, giving the osprey a permanent home while eliminating a hazardous condition.
Environmental Stewardship Recognition
In 2020, our environmental stewardship efforts at the Flint Creek Power Plant in Gentry, Arkansas, received a silver Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) Conservation Certification. The designation recognizes the plant’s habitat enhancement programs, including tallgrass prairie restoration, nesting boxes and other bird habitat improvement, pollinator garden landscapes, restoration of native plant species, and environmental awareness education. Flint Creek has held certification under the WHC’s Corporate Lands for Learning and Wildlife at Work programs since 2004 and 2002, respectively, and since 2016 when the two programs were combined into the Conservation Certification. This certification is indicative of the decades of dedication and commitment to environmental stewardship by the Flint Creek team.
Approximately 700 acres of the power plant’s 1,600 acres are designated as wildlife habitat. The site used for many activities is Flint Creek’s 65-acre Eagle Watch Nature Trail, which includes a half-mile walking trail and two wildlife-viewing pavilions. Built in 1999 on SWEPCO Lake, the power plant’s cooling reservoir, Eagle Watch is located on Highway 12 one mile east of Gentry. It is open to the public at no charge year-round.
- Right-of-Way Conservation
In 2016, we partnered with the Dawes Arboretum in Newark, Ohio to support research on the use of native vegetation on utility right-of-way (ROW) sites to support wildlife, biodiversity, and sustainability/cost effectiveness. The pilot research study demonstrates the feasibility of economically incorporating native plants and pollinator habitats into ROWs through prairie establishment. The Dawes Arboretum project replicates a post-construction restoration scenario and uses a native prairie seed mix to meet these requirements. Researchers are documenting rich biodiversity and monitoring habitat quality, erosion control, succession of prairie development, and invasive tree growth.
In October 2020, the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC), managed by Pollinator Partnership, awarded its first Pollinator Electric Power Award to American Electric Power. The award recognized the collaboration and partnership with the Dawes Arboretum to research native vegetation use on our ROWs. The award recognizes AEP’s commitment to the environment and to collaboration with environmental organizations.
Complementing the Dawes Arboretum study, we are also researching the use of native seed mixes to restore vegetation following the completion of Transmission construction projects. Seed mixes have been tested at sites in Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia and will be monitored for germination success, erosion prevention and stability, species development and drought tolerance. The seed mixes were developed according to regional needs, as well as compliance with restoration requirements. The study affords an opportunity to understand and learn about the feasibility of long-range use of native seed mixes on future construction projects. The results to date indicate the regional seed mixes were successful and complied with local storm water regulations for site stability and vegetation coverage.
We are also involved with other ROW pollinator vegetation management studies, including ROW Vegetation Demonstration Plots planted at the AEP Transmission headquarters in New Albany, Ohio. After three years of planning, ROW vegetation demonstration plots have been seeded and are now in full bloom, covering a total of 8 acres. The seed mixes were developed with help from local conservation organizations, such as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Audubon Society, National Wild Turkey Federation and Pheasants Forever. The various mixes are designed to support birds, pollinators, deer or turkey. We plan to host demonstrations for school groups, NGOs, and other organizations as soon as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
- Pollinator Initiatives
Pollinators provide vital support to our natural ecosystems, including food production. A report by the Electric Power Research Institute (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 multiple measures to protect pollinators and promote their well-being. We are part of EPRI’s Pollinator Program to research ways that electric utilities can support pollinator habitats and raise public awareness of their importance to society.
Our work to raise awareness extends to our employees. Each year, we organize an annual Pollinator Week in concert with peer utilities across the country. Through social media and other interactive communications, we share information about the role of pollinators in plant fertilization and AEP’s efforts to facilitate pollinator population growth through vegetation management. During 2020, about 150 employees participated in a virtual event to learn more about the value of urban gardens to support insects and pollinators.
The focus on pollinators has put the spotlight on the plight of Monarch butterflies, the only insect species to migrate across the continental U.S. It is also a species experiencing population decline. In an effort to support robust Monarch populations and habitats, we have several initiatives in place designed to establish flowering vegetation. These include:
- Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO) registered an official Monarch butterfly waystation outside of its General Office in Tulsa. During migration, Monarchs depend on waystations, or specific habitats, to provide abundant nectar sources and shelter from harsh weather.
- Native seed mixes were planted at the Big Sandy ash pond closure in Kentucky and at the Mountaineer Plant (Gatling Mine) in West Virginia as part of reclamation projects.
- Butterfly gardens, swamp milkweed, buttonbush and other plants are part of the pollinator gardens at the Eagle Watch Nature Trail at Flint Creek Power Plant in Arkansas.
Overall, our efforts and initiatives to implement pollinator-friendly projects on managed lands demonstrate the significant role electric power companies play in boosting pollinator habitats nationwide. These efforts also add to our knowledge of the feasibility and compatibility of supporting natural ecosystems on our property and within our ROWs.
- Wetland and Stream Habitats
The AEP Foundation donated $35,000 to the City of Port Aransas Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond located in Texas to support the restoration and expansion of the local wetland. Paradise Pond is a freshwater wetland and an 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.