Continuous improvement drives FirstEnergy forward
Mark Twain is quoted as having said: “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” It serves as a fitting mantra for FirstEnergy Corp., one of the nation’s largest investor owned electric providers. While rights-of-way perfection is a tall order, FirstEnergy recently implemented several industry best practices that have made its vegetation management program operationally more efficient while also positively affecting the environment in which it works.
FirstEnergy manages an infrastructure of more than 24,000 miles of transmission lines and 269,000 miles of distribution lines that connect the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, and its 10 regulated distribution companies serve more than 6 million customers.
Shawn Standish is the manager of program management and oversight with FirstEnergy. Standish, based in York, Pennsylvania, has been with FirstEnergy for 13 years and is responsible for vegetation management activities for all new transmission construction, ensuring compliance with federal and state regulations, training staff and contractors, emerging technologies and contract strategies.
“It’s no surprise that the company’s first priority is to provide safe and reliable electricity to its customers,” says Standish. “To accomplish that, our team employs integrated vegetation management methods along managed rights-of-way as an integral part of what we deem to be the safest, most effective and efficient maintenance practices.”
As Standish works to apply industry best practices to FirstEnergy’s vegetation management program, he’s uniquely fortunate to have direct involvement in perhaps the most well-respected industry research on responsibly managing utility rights-of-way. In fact, this research takes place in his backyard.
The convergence of research and real-world application
In 1953, the Pennsylvania State Game Lands 33 (SGL33) research began in central Pennsylvania to document the impact of vegetation management practices on wildlife within electric transmission rights-of-way. Over the years, it has provided a blueprint for how to effectively manage rights-of-way with the environment in mind.
FirstEnergy and its predecessor companies have been involved with SGL33 from the beginning, and other partners, such as Dow AgroSciences, Asplundh Tree Expert Co., PECO Energy Company and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, have made sure this independent research treasure has been able to continue over the decades.
“I’ve represented FirstEnergy as a cooperator on SGL33 for the last 10 years and am responsible for the transmission lines that run through this project area,” says Standish. “SGL33 serves as a proving ground to the world when it comes to vegetation management practices and its effects, and we feel fortunate to have represented the industry with what FirstEnergy is doing on these rights-of-way. We implement on our rights-of-way what we see with our own eyes in the research, and that will continue as our program develops and the research continues.”
A new phase of SGL33 research promises more applicable results around one of the hottest topics in the industry right now: pollinators. FirstEnergy is playing a key role.
“FirstEnergy helped initiate the recent focus on pollinators, specifically, bees,” says Standish. “FirstEnergy has been able to share learnings from our involvement in other pollinator projects within our system and look forward to more data as this project continues.”
Being selective with brush control
A good example of FirstEnergy applying SGL33 findings on its own rights-of-way is in its shift to the implementation of selective herbicide treatments. No small task, as FirstEnergy employs multiple contract applicators to treat between 25,000 and 30,000 acres across its system every year.
“We’ve been able to get to a point where most of our management work consists of selective application of herbicides,” says Standish. “Previous to that, the company went through multiple cycles across our system where we were employing mostly high-volume herbicide applications along with mechanical methods in an effort to re-establish managed rights-of-way with more compatible plant species that are consistent with NERC and FERC requirements.”
Instituting a true integrated vegetation management program, with the goal of creating a stable, early successional plant community, is what helped facilitate the company’s transition to using more selective herbicide treatments. To demonstrate the positive impact of that move, consider that FirstEnergy has been able to reduce the number of applied gallons by 65 percent from previous maintenance cycles.
“The majority of the FirstEnergy system is on a five-year treatment cycle, unless local conditions or a particular state mandate requires a four-year cycle,” says Standish. “In our program, each cycle includes treatment of all incompatible vegetation or vegetation that may grow tall enough to interfere with the overhead facilities or impede our access to work or inspect the transmission corridors.
Some of the species we target as incompatible are tartarian honeysuckle, olive species, buckthorn and choke cherry as they tend to harbor faster-growing tree species and make it difficult to identify and control them.”
The move to more selective treatments has also eased landowner communications, which can be a time-consuming part of any vegetation manager’s job.
“There’s a lot of negative perceptions around the necessary work we complete in keeping rights-of-way clear, and we’re working against a lot of misinformation or outdated information,” says Standish. “So, we stay proactive with our communications, and it’s why we invest so many resources in our landowner communication program. We’ve found that being able to show landowners that we are employing selective herbicide treatments — to the benefit of the land and wildlife — has made things a lot easier.”
More flexibility means fewer mixes
Standish and the FirstEnergy team also made the decision to be more selective with what herbicides are included on FirstEnergy’s approved Mix Code list — a list containing all the approved herbicide mixes FirstEnergy’s contract applicators can use across its footprint. There are options for various application methods, and the available mixes factor in things such as local field conditions.
Over the years, the list grew to the point that it became difficult to manage and measure effectiveness. Now, it contains just 22 approved mixes, an 89 percent reduction, something he credits to a more stringent review process and the employment of foundation herbicides that are more flexible.
“When our team reviews the Mix Code list every year, we always consider safety to workers and to the environment as the No. 1 criteria in a herbicide, followed closely by its ability to successfully eliminate target vegetation,” says Standish. “But now the team has also placed increased emphasis on selecting herbicides with the greatest overall application flexibility, especially when factoring in all the various local conditions like pastures, topography and aquatic scenarios our applicators encounter.”
A “flexible” herbicide, as Standish calls it, is one that can be used in various application methods and use sites during a wide application window and for controlling multiple species of weeds and brush.
“FirstEnergy uses a lot of Milestone
and Garlon 4 Ultra
as our team considers them to be very flexible herbicides,” says Standish. “When looking at our current Mix Code list, you’ll find them or another Dow AgroSciences product included in at least one of our prescribed mixes for each application type we use across FirstEnergy’s service territory, which is a testament to their flexibility.”
Fortunately, the flexibility of Milestone®
4 Ultra specialty herbicides doesn’t come at the expense of control. “Our specification requires 95 percent control of incompatible vegetation in each span along with total control of vegetation that may pose a reliability issue prior to the next scheduled maintenance,” says Standish. “And we’ve had good success meeting those desired expectations.”
The annual review of the Mix Code list relies on input from multiple sources. “We rely on input from Brandon (Dunlap, a sales specialist with Dow AgroSciences), our distributors and our team of applicators when it comes to initially choosing herbicides, as well as those we will continue to use,” says Standish. “Once the list is set, we collaborate with our applicators in following a detailed prescription process that starts with looking at the rights-of-way to be treated. That includes a resource planning flight a year prior to any scheduled maintenance or treatments.”
Streamlining herbicide management through closed chain of custody
Drastically reducing the number of approved herbicide mixes also helped pave the way for added efficiency in other areas, namely, in the storage, mixing and tracking of those herbicides — coming in the form of a closed chain of custody (CCC) herbicide delivery system. In 2014, FirstEnergy started the CCC process, which included Continuum® Prescription Control & Container Management System
to eliminate container rinsing and disposal, reduce container storage and handling requirements, and reduce labor costs and accidental exposure to workers.
“It started by encouraging our partners to move our herbicide mixes through the closed chain of custody system, which resulted in conversion of about 60 percent of our total herbicide volume,” says Standish. “Since then, we’ve continued to refine the expectations around using the system with our applicators and our distributor and manufacturer partners.”
In 2017, FirstEnergy decided, upon competitive bid, to sole source delivery of all its 22 approved herbicide mixes through CCC. “That decision takes into account the industry position that this is a best practice, but also helps provide a level playing field across the entire FirstEnergy footprint and puts everyone involved in the best position to achieve success, in terms of safety for our workforce and environmental compliance, commitment to stewardship, quality assurance and efficiency,” says Standish. “It also ended up saving us several tons of waste while freeing up our applicators to spray more acres safely and completely.”
These types of strategic changes demonstrate how continuous improvement embodies FirstEnergy’s approach to vegetation management. And it’s an approach that will continue to serve FirstEnergy well into the future.