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The right way: Keeping power lines unobstructed

Homeowners and electric co-op employees work together to keep power flowing

It’s not just electric cooperative employees who can keep power flowing under safe conditions to residences and businesses: homeowners also have a role.

But they don’t have to climb poles or get close to electric lines; instead, they can work together with co-ops to ensure that rights-of-way are properly maintained and trees and brush don’t interfere with those lines.

Paducah-based Jackson Purchase Energy Cooperative (JPEC) serves six western Kentucky counties using 30,000 electric meters and 3,000 miles of distribution line—1,800 miles of which are overhead and can be affected by trees and other vegetation, says Scott Ribble, the co-op’s vice pres-ident of engineering and operations.

To keep those lines clear, JPEC has tree removal, trimming and herbicide programs. It hires contractors to do the annual trimming within a planned area, from early in the year through late summer or early fall.

‘“We look at it that vegetation grows into the line and can create a risk to our employees and the general public,” Ribble says.

Clark’s Pasley, David McCord and Kendall’s Gary Shelton. Photos: Tim Webb
Kendall Vegetation Service’s Justin Shelton operates a remote-controlled giraffe, with Danny Johnson observing. Photo: Tim Webb
Tyler Castle operates the controls for a machine used in right-of-way management. Photos: Tim Webb Photo: Tim Webb
Townsend Tree Service’s Tony McReynolds, left, of Mayfield, and Dylan Stevenson, of Cadiz, use a rope to pull down parts of the tree that have been cut. Photos: Joe Imel Photo: Joe Imel
Townsend Tree Service’s Tony McReynolds, Mayfield, puts limbs into the chipper while working in Jackson Purchase Energy’s service territory. Photo: Joe Imel
Townsend Tree Service’s Gary Hale, Fancy Farm, tops trees in the Jackson Purchase Energy service area. Photo: Joe Imel
Tyler Moore with Kendall Vegetation Services prepares to trim trees along the right-of-way in Clark Energy’s service territory. Photo: Tim Webb
Kendall Vegetation Services’ Danny Johnson and Clark Energy’s Charlie Pasley work with a remote-controlled machine. Photo: Tim Webb

By law, rights-of-way must be maintained around power lines. Live vegetation can be a con-ductor of electricity, causing shock or even death, he explains, and falling dead trees or limbs can be dangerous to the co-op’s employees and the public.

Gibson Electric Management Corporation Forestry Supervisor Mark Greene says trees must be regularly trimmed both for safety and reliabil-ity: “The safety issue is we want to keep trees out of the power lines because you wouldn’t want a kid climbing up in a tree, and the tree is connected to power lines.”

Without proper maintenance, trees or branches on power lines can cause flickering lights or out-ages, and thick underbrush in a right-of-way can get in the way of crews, delaying restoration times. An average of 15% of power interruptions occur when trees, shrubs, or bushes grow too close to power lines.

It’s not that members can’t beautify their prop-erty with trees at all. In fact, Ribble says if trees are planted correctly, they likely won’t interfere with power lines, even if they topple during a storm.

“I know members and homeowners like to have trees and we certainly encourage them to have trees,” he says. “Let’s plant the right tree in the right place.”

Though he advises against planting trees inside the right-of-way, he says any trees inside the right-of-way should not exceed 10 feet at maturity. Planting any vegetation around utility poles is frowned upon because it becomes a hazard in maintaining the poles. Trees planted about 25 feet from power lines should be a maximum of 25 feet tall at maturity, but can be 25–40 feet tall at maturity if they’re planted 40 feet from lines. Trees with a 40-foot or more mature height can be safely planted 60 feet from power lines.

Also, call your local electric co-op before you build an addition or barn to ensure it’s not on the right-of-way.

The basic message above all, Greene says, is for homeowners to look overhead when landscaping or planting trees, and not plant anything that will eventually entangle with power lines.

“Whatever kind of tree or plant they’re going to plant, just imagine when that gets to be a full-grown specimen what that’s going to look like and how that might interfere with the power lines if that’s planted too close,” he says.

New tactics

The Winchester-based Clark Energy Cooperative, serving 11 east-central Kentucky counties, introduced a new strategy this year to help keep greenery at bay. A tree growth regulator is applied around trees that otherwise would need trimming every two to three years. This slows their growth until the next trimming cycle comes around.


“We typically try to meet with the member, give them information on it and let them decide, and we’ve had really good luck with that,” says David McCord, the co-op’s rights-of-way coordinator.

The goal, he says, is to average around 300 miles a year for tree trimming on a seven-year cycle, but usually it’s somewhat less. With 3,000 miles of distribution line, the co-op contracts with a trimming service and uses an herbicide program to keep woody underbrush at bay without harming grazing animals.

McCord says it also uses high-tech forestry clear-ing equipment, including two remote-controlled units. Workers try to keep their impact on private property to a mindful minimum.

With members in both Tennessee and Kentucky (Fulton and Hickman counties, and parts of Carlisle and Graves) and 3,200 miles of lines, Gibson EMC operates on a four- to five-year tree trimming plan, Greene says.

“So every time we come around to trim we’re having to get enough clearance on the tree to the line to allow for about four to five years of growth before we come around to trim the tree again,” he says.
Some herbicide spraying is performed the fol-lowing fall to eradicate small saplings sprouting in rights-of-way, he says.

Here to help 

While homeowners have a role, Ribble cautions that they shouldn’t attempt tree trimming around power lines by themselves. 

Electric cooperative personnel are happy to send someone out to help if you call, and can even advise where to plant trees, he says. 

In addition to information on JPEC’s website and on social media, members can also get help from its member service representatives and line crews. 

Greene says Gibson EMC often sends its members postcards letting them know about upcoming trimming efforts and where to call for more information or to ask questions. 

McCord says letters and pamphlets are sent to Clark Energy members detailing planned maintenance efforts to keep them informed before work begins. They’re always welcome to call for tree planting guidance, he adds. 

“We strive really hard to have a cooperative effort between our landowners and our rights-of-way program,” McCord says. “Of course, I put that first and foremost—it’s paramount to have good relationships.

Everything you need to know for clearing rights of way 

Jackson Purchase Energy has put together a handy guide on keeping rights of way clear for its members, but anyone can take advantage of these tips, which include videos as well as easy to follow info on trimming trees and brush. Help your co-op keep your electricity flowing with this information.

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