DECATUR – Ameren Illinois is supercharging its efforts to save birds of prey from being fried on its power lines and transformers.
The utility has been busy fitting protective coverings to power poles, transformers and other equipment to save birds such as eagles, owls and hawks from being electrocuted as they seek a perch to hunt for lunch. Lines are also being fitted with devices that make them more visible to lessen mid-air collisions.
Spending anywhere from $500 to $2,500 per installation, the utility has fitted safety protectors on more than 1,400 locations since 2010 after surveying lines to find where raptors are concentrated.
Ron Pate, Ameren Illinois senior vice president of operations and technical services, reports positive results: a previous rate of some 125 bird casualties a year has dropped to fewer than five since 2012.
And new lines are installed to new standards with birds in mind: wider spacing of the wires stops raptors from being able to touch lines with their outstretched wings and electrocute themselves. The crucial spacing for new lines, or the protective space for old lines fitted with safety covers, turns out to be more than 5 feet of clearance.
“That's the wingspan of an eagle,” said Riley Adams, a utility consulting engineer and its avian protection program manager. “So a bird as big as an eagle or smaller can land there and take off safely and not get injured.”
Riley has been on a mission to save raptors and belongs to a group called the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee that involves biologists and engineers cooperating to keep birds and lines from interacting in disastrous ways. Ameren Illinois also has collaborated with manufacturers to develop more effective shielding equipment for electric infrastructure, and that equipment is available nationwide.
The same equipment also safeguards other animals such as squirrels and raccoons, whose frying bodies have been a common cause of power outages. “So we've decreased the number of individual outages to our customers where we have installed this stuff,” Riley added. “It's helping to keep the lights on.”
Riley said some 3,000 Ameren Illinois workers and contractors have received “avian training” to help them understand company policy, and the reaction from his co-workers has been upbeat. “I really feel their hearts are in it, and they are conscientious about what they are doing,” added Riley, 55. “They're happy about making a difference.”
Not every bird gets saved, however, and the utility has tried to make a difference here as well. The Ameren Corporation Charitable Trust recently made a $50,000 donation to the Decatur-based Illinois Raptor Center, which rehabilitates and provides long-term care for injured birds of prey. The money was used to build 36 new cages.