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Protecting birds can boost bottom line

Birds and electrical lines can be a deadly combination.

The number of wild birds injured or killed by collision or electrocution cannot be accurately measured, but it is thought to be substantial.

Nikki Heck, an environmental adviser for electrical transmission company AltaLink, has worked to reduce bird fatalities by implementing the first avian protection plan developed by a Canadian utility company.

Her efforts made her one of four finalists for an Emerald Award, which recognizes efforts to make Alberta a more environmentally friendly province. Results were to be announced June 6.

“It’s not a matter of winning. This is about being able to get awareness of this issue out to the public,” said Heck.

“My hope is that other utility companies will read this story or hear this story and it’s going to inspire them to maybe implement similar programs within their own organizations.”

She said two other Alberta utility companies are developing similar bird protection programs, but none elsewhere in Canada.

Environment Canada is expected to soon file a study on wild bird mortality from collision and electrocution.

A U.S. study from 2005 estimated that utility lines injure or kill 130 million birds a year, although Heck said she thinks the number is unreliable because it was extrapolated from high-risk areas.

Nevertheless, bird electrocutions cause 20 percent of power outages each year in North America, making the cost substantial to birds, the public and industry.

The AltaLink protection plan she devised involves installing reflective markers on the overhead shield wire of lines in high-risk areas. These thin lines are the ones most frequently hit by flying birds, particularly when they are near wetlands.

“For collision, the issue is water birds primarily, because they have heavy bodies. They’re a little bit more awkward flyers. They’re not as maneuverable so they have a hard time reacting really quickly to unexpected obstacles,” Heck said.

Two percent of AltaLink lines are near wetlands.

In the windy areas south of Clares­holm, spiral devices called bird flight diverters are used on the lines instead. They increase the diameter of the line so birds can more easily see them.

To minimize electrocution, AltaLink worked with Cantega Technologies to develop and install “green jackets” on substations, where birds tend to build nests and have a greater chance of completing a deadly circuit by simultaneously touching two wires.

Heck said electrocutions have been reduced by 95 percent on structures where the jackets were installed.

Cost of the protection is far less than that of damaged or destroyed equipment and power loss when a bird electrocution occurs, she added.

“We know there’s a very short payback.”

Ravens, crows and owls are at most risk of electrocution. The former are attracted to the shiny equipment and the latter like substations as nest locations.

As a biologist, Heck said some find it odd that she works in the electrical utility industry. However, she sees it as a benefit.

“Industry is inevitable and these things are going to be built regardless, but there are win-win solutions and it’s up to people who are really dedicated to really dig in and find those win-win solutions.”

It’s a win-win if birds can be saved, companies save money and the public has uninterrupted electrical service, she said.

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