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Being a Good Neighbour to our Trees in the Age of Climate Change


Release Date: 03/13/2023

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Trees play an important role in carbon sequestration, slowing the rise of greenhouse gas emissions as they grow. But during extreme weather, trees can bring down power lines, damage equipment, ignite fires, and cause power outages. They add a layer of complexity to maintaining a resilient power grid. In thinkenergy episode 107, Hydro Ottawa’s Nick Levac, Supervisor of Distribution Operations, and Greg Tipman, Forestry Inspector, discuss how to minimize power outages while preserving a healthy urban forest.


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Dan Seguin  00:06

This is ThinkEnergy, the podcast that helps you better understand the fast changing world of energy through conversations with game changers, industry leaders, and influencers. So join me, Dan Seguin, as I explore both traditional and unconventional facets of the energy industry. Hey everyone, welcome back. While local and global efforts focus on achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 through the electrification, or transformation of certain industries, it is also important to consider the significant role natural climate solutions can play in greening communities. Warren Buffett famously said, someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago. Trees make our world a beautiful place and provide us with many lasting benefits, such as shade, privacy, shelter, and food, and they contribute to our mental well being. Aside from those benefits, trees play an important role in carbon reduction, slowing the rise of GHG emissions as they grow. But if you know anything about electricity, you know that electricity and trees seldom mix. That doesn't mean they can't be good neighbors though. Across the City of Ottawa, there are an estimated 185,000 trees in proximity to Hydro Ottawa was 2800 kilometers of overhead high voltage power lines. When trees are close enough to potentially contact overhead power lines, public safety and the uninterrupted supply of electricity can be compromised. Utilities have a responsibility to ensure its electricity distribution system is safe, and that it operates reliably. Because of that, they must also ensure that their equipment can withstand extreme weather events such as high winds, and heavy snow falls and ice. broken tree branches can bring down power lines and create serious public safety concerns like damaged equipment fires and power outages. All of which can be a frustrating and costly experience for both the utility company and customers. In an urban area, the presence of trees adds an additional layer of complexity to the challenge of maintaining reliable and resilient power grids. Finding a way to minimize power outages while preserving a healthy urban tree canopy is an important goal for urban planners and utility companies. Through a combination of strategic tree planting, pruning and maintenance, as well as the use of technology and innovative solutions. It's possible to strike a balance between these two important priorities, ensuring that the city remains livable, and sustainable for years to come. Responsible tree trimming and maintenance has resulted in reducing power outages by 40%. In Ottawa alone, with extreme weather events we've witnessed in the past few years, and as the climate continues to change, the outcome will create more problems for utilities to provide reliable power to customers without extended outages. So here is today's big question. In the age of climate change and environmental responsibility, how can utility companies strike a balance between maintaining reliable service, minimizing outages and maintaining a healthy and vibrant urban forest? To help us better understand this balancing act? I've invited Nick Novak, who's the supervisor of distribution operations, and a forestry inspector Greg Tipmann. Welcome both. Greg, I'll start with you. Can you tell us a bit about your work? And what the biggest misconceptions are about tree trimming and vegetation control programs when it comes to electricity?


Greg Tipman  04:49

For sure, Dan, and just just again, thanks for having us on your podcast this morning. Getting the kind of meat potatoes my daily job encompasses: speaking with customers, addressing the vegetation concerns around power lines, auditing the contractor we use, which is Aspen tree service. There's also coordinating our jobs, our time and material jobs. So it's stuff that I look at and deal with the customer then gets delegated directly to a secondary crew to do that specific work for the customer. There's also writing of prescriptions for any work for other jobs for the customers. So specific work they want hydro Ottawa to do that's outside of our regular trim program. Some of the biggest misconceptions that I've run into is that a lot of the public thinks that our tree work is just a hack and slash that there's no thought or science put into the tree trimming that's actually going on, when, in actuality, we have a whole set of standards for proper pruning, and tree trimming of the species around the Hydra wires. And that kicks back to our working procedures or our lifeline clearing techniques. And then there's another misconception that I've run into quite a bit is that a lot of people think that for us, or for our contractor to do the tree trimming, the power has to be shut off every single time. And that's, that's not the case. We like to keep it as a very rare scenario when we do have to shut the power off. And that's usually just for a safety issue for the tree trimmers.


Dan Seguin  06:38

Okay, cool, Nick. We often say that trees and electrical wires don't mix. What types of dangerous situations can occur if they come in contact with one another? Is there a recent example you can share with us?


Nick Levac  06:58

Yeah, so I mean, first first, and mine is obviously power outages. That's kind of the first thing that we hear about when a tree comes down on our conductors. But, you know, the power outages can vary from, you know, a whole circuit right back to a substation to just localized outages in your community or along your streets. The other thing, if the tree does come down on the line, and they're in our system doesn't doesn't experience an outage, oftentimes, trees can catch on fire. So we've had, we've had examples over the years where trees are resting on a line, nobody notices it, and then eventually it'll catch on fire, which obviously can cause other issues. And especially in the summertime with dry conditions. If that does come down to the ground, it could, you know, start forest fires, which, unfortunately, our neighbors in the south and us have experienced in California and stuff. So but there was there was one larger outage and I think it was a start in November November 2, whereas a spruce tree that was quite a bit away from the line did fail, and it came down and took down to two conductors out at the end of my road, I believe it was and it caused a large outage. We were in a sense, those are almost better to have, because it's easier to find that tree and where the problem is. And we can get crews out to fix it in a quick manner. But that's probably the most recent one that we've had that had a major outage and a big impact to our system.


Dan Seguin  08:32

So we're clear, Nick, what are the guidelines that determine if tree trimming or vegetation management near powerlines is required? What does sufficient clearance from an electrical equipment look like?


Nick Levac  08:46

Yeah, so like Greg mentioned in the first question there we have our rivers going through our system, and we're looking at at standards that we trim to the cities divided up into about 30 vegetation management zones. And they're divided into either a two or three year trim cycle, which means you'll see our versus your backyard, you're on the streets, trimming out to our guidelines, either every second year, third year. Our main goal, there's a couple of them. But our main goal when we're trimming to our standards that we have,  is when we come back and either in two or three years, the vegetation that we trimmed out is still three feet away. There's different zones that we have from 10 feet back to the conductor or the live overhead wire, and from the wire out to three feet is called the restricted zone. And as I mentioned that that's where we do not want the vegetation to get into because if we if it does get in there creates a bunch of different problems for our for our tree arborist to go in there. And as Greg mentioned, outages is the last thing we want to do when we're trimming trees. And if that veg does get into that restricted zone, increased outages for trimming sometimes An option that we have to look at what we're trying to avoid. So that's, that's kind of our main goal. We look at the species a tree, and how much it would grow in a year. And as the arborist comes through, they're going to trim back that many feet. So if we have a fast growing species that grows a three or four feet a year, and we're going to be back in two years, we're going to trim that back three feet times two, plus the additional three feet. So we're looking at about a 10 foot trim on that.


Dan Seguin  10:29

Nick, pruning, and especially removal of interfering trees often caused controversy. In an age of climate change and environmental responsibility. What do you tell folks that object to or have concerns about the important work you do to help keep the lights on entry safe?


Nick Levac  10:53

Yeah, that's a great question. We, you know, our I think you hit the last word there, and your question kind of hits on our main goal of everything that we do here at Hydro is safety. So, not only are we looking out for the publics safety, ensuring that trees are coming down on the line and staying energized. But we're also looking out for worker safety. So as we're going through, we tried to do preventative maintenance, so to speak. So very much like you get your oil changed in a car, or you put your winter tires on this time of year, we're trying to trim trees away from the lines to make sure they don't come in contact that avoids outages, unplanned outages, especially because, you know, it's one thing to get a phone call to say, Hey, your power is going to be out because we're doing preventative maintenance, whether it's tree trimming, or upgrading the electrical system. It's another thing to wake up at two o'clock in the morning after like, so the heat off and everything and it's unexpected, and you're trying to get your kids ready, you're at home or whatever. So preventative maintenance is the big thing. And we try to educate our customers that what we're doing out there is really just to make sure that we can decrease outages and especially those unplanned outages. The other thing that we look at when we're pruning trees is the tree health. And I know Greg's gonna get into this, I think a little bit later on. But just looking at the species of a tree and how we trimmed them to make sure that the health of the tree is also a huge interest for our births that are up there. They're all certified trained arborists, with some extra training on the electrical side, because obviously, we're trimming around live electrical lines. But when they get up into a tree, they're looking at the health of the tree. There's a lot of stuff once they get up into the canopy of the tree that they noticed that you can't see from the ground. So they're taking into account and they're taking out any Deadwood or anything in there and and try to not only like I mentioned before getting those clearances that we need for the electrical side, but also trying to enhance the tree growth away from our lines and lucky that the health of the tree, but take any dead wood or anything out of it.


Dan Seguin  12:55

So back to you, Greg, I know you trim trees on public property that are within three meters of an overhead line. But what about on private property? trees near utility lines inherently carry serious risk to property owners who may be injured or even killed when working near powerlines? What are homeowners responsible for? And when should they call the utility to arrange for their help? Like a planned outage? Basically, what do homeowners need to know?


Greg Tipman  13:33

Yeah, Dan, so when you're speaking about the kind of responsibilities on vegetation maintenance, Hydro Ottawa is responsible for the pole the pole wire vegetation maintenance. The area around the high voltage wire that Hydro trims is part of our responsibility is 10 feet for the primary which is usually the very top wire running pole, as well as about a three foot clearance around our low voltage or secondary wires. And again, that's the pole, the pole wires. Just I want to make that bold statement. That's Hydros responsibility as part of our maintenance package. Kind of like Nick was touching up on and that that happens pending what grid what year, you know, two to three years Central, within kind of the city core versus the outer rural areas. If a customer is looking to have work done on their tree which is growing out of their private property, and it's near our overhead wires, hydro comes in free charge we get it clear 10 feet 10 feet back, debris would stay on site, and then it would be the homeowners responsibility to either cut the tree down themselves hire private tree contractor or if they wanted, they could also hire hydro Ottawa, do our work for others program and we would write them out a full And we'll treat quote, and they would, they would pay an additional cost for that work that's outside of our regular maintenance scope. Now in regards to the, the wires running pole to house service wire, or if you're in a rural area, and it's a private primary wire, there's a couple options that they have for having those what those wires that vegetation trimmed out, they can either hire a private tree contractor, and hydro Ottawa, our service department provides one free disconnect a year for any tree work a little bit more legwork for the customer or the contractor to do, but it's an entirely viable option. The second option is they can again hire hydro, to trim out their service wire, to whatever specs we normally recommend. It's a low voltage secondary wire, to have about a three foot clearance on it, they want us to go with that option. I myself would write them out a formal tree, quote, and have all the details. proof of payment forehand would be had. And then we would schedule the customer an exact date. And they would essentially have the work done to what the quote was that they're paying for the work to be done and, and go from there. It's quite effective. We've gotten a lot of feedback from the customers about having their service wire trimmed down and there's been a lot of good things to have come from having us on site. And just doing it all, not having to worry about them having to organize an outage on their house. So it's, it's been a good go.


Dan Seguin  16:39

Here's another question for you, Greg. When planting a young sapling, it's often difficult to imagine that in a few years, like 10 years, it could have a significant impact on the landscape with an expanding canopy. As a homeowner, or a landscaper, if you are planting a new tree, how important is it to contact your utility service provider to discuss your plans? Do you have any tree planting advice? Or some good resources on what to plant and where?


Greg Tipman  17:18

Yes, yes. So basically, Hydro Ottawa has a really good source on our internet page. Basically, just type in Google out "Hydro Ottawa tree planting advice," and it'll take you right to a pamphlet that's been put on the internet. And it has everything for suggestions of where the tree should be planted, what type of species is it? How tall will it grow? How wide will the canopy grow? How many feet back from an overhead wire should be planted? It has a breakdown of species names. What soils are their best to be planted in? You know, like I said, they're their typical growth structure in relation to overhead wires. And there's also advice given on planting around underground wires, which a lot of people you know, you don't see them, you don't really think they're there. But most people just see the green box, the ground transformer, if you will. But where are the wires going? What? Which way? Can I plant and whatnot. So it's a really great resource that has a lot of information, a lot of diagrams. Definitely check it out. And then another great option would be just put a call in have myself or Nick show up. And, you know, we can tell you, you know, basically where the what, what's the lay of the land? What is your yard showing you? You know, are there other trees in the neighborhood or in your yard? You can get a very good look just from seeing what's out there, what to expect. And then and then go from there.


Dan Seguin  19:08

Okay, Nick, this next question might be in your wheelhouse. A power outage occurs when there's direct contact between two conducting lines face to face, or by providing a path for electricity to travel to the ground. There are several other ways that vegetation trees in particular, can cause power outages, wondering if you could expand on the causes and how utilities and folks in your profession mitigate that.


Nick Levac  19:40

Yeah, yeah, it's an interesting question. It's obviously something we look at all the time. And that's our biggest goal within our department is to mitigate those outages and I actually came from a background in the lines department as a power line maintainer for 10 years and then and swung over and got into working with the veg management program. And, you know, I'd say it's a really good partnership that we have right now, not only with Greg and our other utility forestry inspectors, but along with our contractor Aspen who's doing the work for us. And, you know, that's a constant conversation that we're having week in, week out. And not only are we reviewing any outages that might have occurred the week before and trying to follow up on those to see why those power outages occurred and how we can hopefully prevent them from reoccurring. But within the system itself, the electrical system, we have, it's very much like your house where it's set up where we have different circuits all the way through the city. And within each circuit, we have different fusing, the further you get away from the substation. So the fusion coordination can really help out if you have a tree that falls at the very end of that circuit. We have the fusion set up in a way that it's only going to go back to the next device downstream. And if everything is working properly, that fuse will open up and it'll really shrink the size of that outage rather than going all the way back to the substation. So if you can imagine if you have 1000 customers on a circuit, and you had 10, different fuses all the way down, and that last one blows, you're gonna only affect 100 people instead of 1000 people. Also, within our system, we have devices called reclosers. So I'm sure many, many, many listeners have had their lights flicker on and off two or three times. And then unfortunately, after that third flicker, the power does stay off permanently. That means that there's a bigger issue on the line and that reclosure could self clear. So those devices are there. For momentary outages, when they see a spike in amperage, they'll open up the circuit, and give time for that tree or whatever that foreign interference is to clear itself. And then close back in with the hopes that once it closes back in that that power will stay on. If it senses that it's still there, it'll open back up again. Hopefully allow it to clear a little bit longer closed back in again, and hopefully the second time's a charm. Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn't work. And then you experienced that outage, the last kind of protection in the whole stream protection devices is that circuit breaker back at the station. That's kind of the worst case if we see a circuit open up. That means that there's a major problem. Usually, like you mentioned there, there's a face to face kind of issue where two conductors have slapped together. And that's kind of what causes the biggest outage, that's when we know we have a large problem. And the other issue with that is because our circuits are so long, some of them are you know, in the downtown core where we have more substations, it's a little bit easier to find because you know, the circuit might only be say a kilometer or two long, but if you get out into the rural Orleans, Kanata, down south though Manotick, Nepean you can have, you know, 10-15-20 kilometers a line. So if your circuit breaker and your station opens up, that means that somewhere between your station at the end of the line is your problem. So their fault indicators and stuff on your line that can help pinpoint it. But it definitely can make it more challenging when you're starting back at your substation now having to patrol 2020 kilometers a line versus if that fuse opens at the very end of your line you okay, it's the last section within that line. The other thing that can really help us out is the customers in the field. So a lot of times we'll get calls in and it's great to get that information and Hyderabad was very active on social media and that that definitely helps if, if a customer sees a problem if they see a line down if they see a bright blue flash if they hear alert, loud bang, you know, first and foremost, let us know don't ever approach down wire stay away even trees that could be leaning up against a wire. And I mentioned this before just because the trees against the wire if that wire still energizes that could potentially energize that tree. So we want to make sure we stay back, you know, stay back 10 meters from that tree, stay back 10 meters from that electrical line because you don't know if it's on or if it's still alive. So your safety is first and foremost, call 911. If there's any you know, immediate hazard fire police can come in and assist, they will get a hold of our system offers right away and direct us to that. Or if it's something that's, you know, a little bit less than you think that Hydros should know, we have lots of different social media channels you can reach out on and let us know. And that really does help because that information does find its way down to the crews in the fields and it helps us get to the outage and find that problem that's causing the outage that much quicker.


Dan Seguin  24:57

In addition to being a qualified arborist Greg, you also have extensive knowledge about electricity. Can you talk about this dual role and special qualifications that you have? How dangerous is your job? And do you work around live electricity at high voltage?


Greg Tipman  25:17

Yeah, Dan. So just a little background on my schooling and qualifications. So I did my forestry technologist diploma at Algonquin, which is a two year program. And then from there, I moved out to BC to work on some really big trees and wildlife out there. I morphed into the utility side of tree work. And that's where I went and did my apprenticeship program. From there, you need approximately 4000 hours just to qualify, the program is a two year program, you accumulate about about 6000 hours around of live line clearing, working around the wires, you learn how electricity all the bases, electricity, how it works, how to identify the equipment, that coupled with your actual tree work in the tree, the the tools, special tools you'll be using, so dielectrically tools, how to operate bucket trucks, so on and so forth, rigging big chunks of wood down and trees how to do it safely. All the while in close proximity to these overhead high voltage wires. It's very, very dangerous. I mean, you couple your, you know, 3040 5060 feet up hanging by ropes, you're using a chainsaw to cut wood. Plus you have a live line that's, you know, five, six feet away from you. So it's definitely very dangerous. But the schooling, the on the job training that you get just, you know, old hands, showing you the techniques, the up to date, safety standards, and whatnot, it makes your comfort level something that you would never, you know, come natural to you become second nature. So it's definitely a process, it's definitely building confidence over time. And then, you know, taking classes, learning, whether it's through the International Society of Arboriculture on the tree side of things for tree health, you know, what are the tree species? Biology pests? You know, a lot of times customers will ask, you know, why is my tree dying? Why is it declining? A lot of times people will think, oh, it's Hydro, you trimmed the tree incorrectly? Well, no, it's, you know, a pest infestation or you did some landscaping or whatnot, the roots have been killed and whatnot. So it's learning all that, that, you know, information and coupling it and pairing it with the electrical side of things that it really makes for a harmonious job and, you know, a great aspect to keep learning, there's always new information, new research coming out on on trees and the electrical side of things. You know, and then just just basically, you know, having the resources also at hydro Ottawa, it makes that partnership that much better for getting the work done and done safely.


Dan Seguin  28:41

Okay, so, Greg, I've seen some amazing footage of folks in your profession climbing pretty high in trees. So besides not having a fear of heights. What's that, like? And what's the favorite thing about your job? Have you ever surprised some birds or even squirrels? Or have surprised you?


Greg Tipman  29:06

Yeah, so kind of, like I was touching on there. I mean, the fear of heights is not was never really the big, big deal. It was more trusting your gear. Knowing that, you know, a 10-12 millimeter diameter rope is going to hold you and your gear. You know, it's going to hold, you know, wood swinging around and whatnot, it's not going to break off, you know that your knots have been tied correctly. They're not going to come undone, you're gonna fall to your death and get injured or whatnot. Those were kind of the first fears to really get over. But once you get that , it's practice. The more you do it, the more you get comfortable doing it, the more you feel safe and secure. I've definitely had some weird, interesting animal encounters while working in the trees. I've had birds land on my head and stay there. Are while working. I've had raccoons, you know, climb out hollows. I've had bats, you know, fly out from underneath bark. But probably the scariest wasn't in the tree yet, but we're doing some ground slash BC and probably 10-12 feet away, a black bear just goes running right by. And yeah, it was exhilarating, but it was done in a flash and yeah, nothing more. But you know, it definitely, you know, could have been a different interesting situation had the bear been a, you know, an angry bear, if you will or whatnot. But, you know, if we're, yeah, for the most part, it's the job. You get to see nature all the time. And there's always something great to see. Animal wise.


Dan Seguin  30:50

Okay, both. Are you ready to tag team and close us off with some rapid fire questions? Greg, I'm going to start with you. What's your favorite tree?


Greg Tipman  31:01

Can I give you four Dan? So Eastern White Pine, the monkey puzzle tree, Giant Sequoia, and the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.


Dan Seguin  31:12

Nick, let's move on to you. What is one thing you can't live without?


Nick Levac  31:17

That's an easy one. It's got to be my family. My two girls at home, my lovely wife, and probably a good cup of coffee or a nice americano in the morning just to get things going.


Dan Seguin  31:28

Greg, what habit or hobby? Have you picked up during shelter in place?


Greg Tipman  31:37

Probably flying and crashing my drone, I need more practice.


Dan Seguin  31:48

Okay, next one is for you, Nick. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?


Nick Levac  31:56

You know what, I think never to age physically. Only in wisdom. The body's getting a little bit older. And every time I go out and try to play hockey or do something now I wake up a little bit sore in the morning so I would keep my physical health. Maybe back when I was in my 20s. That would be amazing.


Dan Seguin  32:16

What about you, Greg, what would your superpower be?


Greg Tipman  32:20

Maybe just unlimited superpowers.


Dan Seguin  32:25

Okay, back to you, Nick. If you could turn back time and talk to your 18 year old self? What would you tell him?


Nick Levac  32:33

You know, I probably try to let them in on a couple of neat world events that we're going to take place between then and then when they're my age now, and just tell him to go there and make sure he's present. And no matter what the cost is. Sometimes you only get what's a once in a lifetime chance to see things and make sure he gets there to experience that life.


Dan Seguin  32:58

And lastly, this one is for the both of you. What do you currently find most interesting in your sector? Greg?


Greg Tipman  33:08

It's really the day to day change, there's always a different challenge that's coming up, you're always in a different location dealing with different people. So it's never, you know, a month a monotonous job, it's always fluid, there's always something new.


Dan Seguin  33:26

What about you, Nick?


Nick Levac  33:28

What excites me the most coming down the pipe, I think it’s the technology that hopefully we're going to be exposed to. I mean, Greg mentioned crashing his drone, but you know, just even stuff like that, and us being able to fly over headlines and really take a good snapshot of what that vegetation looks like within our city. And and what we can do to kind of have a good mix between you know, maintaining that Urban Canopy in Ottawa, and then also at the same time keeping the electricity on and if we can use different types of technology that's coming down the pipe to find a balance between the two that we can get out and and proactively trim trees because we know exactly where they are. And also keep that Urban Canopy for the customers here in Ottawa. I think there's an interesting mix coming down, how we can leverage that technology to our advantage.


Dan Seguin  34:17

Nick, and Greg, we reached the end of another episode of The think energy podcast. I hope you had a lot of fun. And again, thank you so much for joining me today. Cheers.


Greg Tipman  34:33

Thanks again for having us, Dan.


Nick Levac  34:35

Yes, thank you, Dan.


Dan Seguin  34:38

Thanks for tuning in for another episode of The thinkenergy podcast. Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review where ever you're listening! And to find out more about today's guests or previous episodes, visit thinkenergypodcast.com. I hope you will join us again next time as we spark even more conversations about the energy of tomorrow.