Episode 6: Vegetation Management in a Major City w/ New York Power Authority’s Lew Payne

Welcome to the Sixth Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management! 

In the sixth episode of Trees and Lines, we sat down with Vegetation Management powerhouse Lew Payne. Lew has over 30 years of industry experience and is currently the Manager of Rights-of-Way and Environmental Services for the New York Power Authority (NYPA) where he oversees the transmission system. The NYPA lead the transition to a carbon-free, economically vibrant New York through customer partnerships, innovative energy solutions, and the responsible supply of affordable, clean, and reliable electricity. The company practices integrated vegetation management and developed a system that has been in place for over twenty years. According to Lew, the NYPA has 1,400 miles or 23,000 acres of transmission right-of-way. 

Long-Range Vegetation Management

For over twenty years, Lew has continuously worked on the development of a long-range system-wide vegetation management plan. An important thing to remember about implementing
vegetation management plans, Lew explains, is that they don’t just happen overnight. It’s important to think long-term to effectively establish the correct strategies.

The Challenges of a Heavily Regulated State

Although the NYPA is a state-owned utility, there are still regulations that must be complied with. Some of these regulations include protections for wetlands and the use of herbicides. Using herbicides can become quite a tricky situation as every state has different regulations. For example, just because an herbicide is approved for use in one state it does not mean it can be used in another. In New York specifically, utilities must have herbicides approved by the state even after they have been approved by the EPA. These regulations are enforced by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.  The New York State Public Service Commission also specifies that there must be a long-range vegetation management system in place. Being a state agency, the NYPA is exempt from this. However, the NYPA chooses to comply by having a well-established vegetation management plan and taking steps to fulfill all regulations including wetland and herbicide regulations.

How is GIS Used in Vegetation Management? 

A geographic Information System (GIS) is a type of technology that produces and stores geographic data. The New York Power Authority utilizes GIS as the core management tool for its vegetation program. With GIS, multiple layers can be captured such as regulations, landowners, plan and profiles, and easements. Since its earliest days, the NYPA has taken a vegetation inventory. This process is conducted by walking the right-of-way to classify land use and cover types. Treatments are also prescribed through the examination of the densities and heights of compatible and non-compatible vegetation. Polygons, or areas that contain homogenous vegetation are identified by vegetation crews. The data for the corresponding treatment plans is then digitally recorded along with herbicide use and weather conditions. The NYPA uses this data for a process called reverse invoicing. Once polygons are completed and checked off by forestry staff, the vegetation management crew can go in and pull out the completed ones to bill

Managing Vegetation with Vegetation 

Lew practices a strategy that he likes to call “managing vegetation with vegetation.” This refers to managing the compatible biodiverse ecosystem and prescribing treatments.  The non-compatibles are targeted by encouraging compatible vegetation. The encouragement of compatibles allows the early succession of plant communities to establish and compete for resources. This benefits the environment by decreasing the number of herbicides Lew and his crews utilize. 

One downside to this process is that Lew is finding that the compatibles have become much too dense. The reason for concern is that the density causes the non-compatibles to become hidden, making it more difficult to identify them among the compatibles. To combat this issue, Lew is focusing on making access for crews easier by mowing narrow strips (5 – 10 ft wide) under conductors. With this strategy, the escapes will be easier to identify and the crews will be able to penetrate the compatibles easily to target the non-compatibles. Lew has been able to implement this effectively in New York. However, we know that there are different rules and regulations around the country. And so, the question remains: could this process be applied in other regions? Lew believes it is possible if utilities have “…a true understanding of the principles of vegetation management.” “Integration vegetation management should be able to be done across North America” Lew states. In fact, Phil explains, “The Power Authority is one of eight utilities that have achieved the right-of-way steward accreditation for excellence in IVM” and this group “is spread all across the country.”

Bats, Pollinator, Herbicide and Drone Research

Vegetation management has continued to change over the years. Because of the constant evolvement of the field, research is critical. For instance, Lew is currently researching how endangered bat populations are impacted by tree cutting and right-of-way management. The second topic of research Lew is involved in is pollinator research. New York is currently working toward upgrading and rebuilding its transmission systems to shift to handle a more renewable approach to doing business. Because of this change, during construction mats are being put on the ground for up to twelve months.  Lew is looking into the impact these mats have on insects and pollinators. Together with the Electric Power Research Institute, (EPRI), Payne is asking: When the mats are pulled out, will the pollinators be able to return or was there any impact on the pollinator population? Another area of research Lew is involved in is in testing the application of herbicides using drone technology. Currently, Lew is researching whether drones can be used in areas where it is difficult for crews to work. Using drones could facilitate the herbicide process and make operations more efficient.

Payne has collected a vast amount of data over the years, utilizing a vegetation inventory. Last year, Lew added a “pollinator habitat scorecard” where he and his crew rank or provide a valuation of habitat in different areas in terms of importance to pollinators. Some of the things they are paying attention to are the flowering resources, invasive species, and the types of pollinator communities that are present. The pollinator habitat scorecard was developed
by the Rights of Way as Habitat Working Group through the University of Illinois.
  Payne expects to garner around 1200 of these scorecard sites when he gets across his whole system that he can utilize to analyze rankings.

Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging)

Payne shared that he currently only uses LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) on a quarter of his system every year. This means that it is only available to him every four years. When asked where he would invest capital if his IVM budget was doubled, Payne responded by saying that he would use LIDAR for his entire system every year. By using LIDAR in this way, Payne explains that he could track changes better.

Getting Involved in the Industry

Payne currently chairs or sits on multiple committees that have allowed him to share his ideas and advance his vegetation strategies. The Environmental Energy Alliance of New York (EEANY) is an organization of New York utilities consisting of various subcommittees.  Involvement in these subcommittees has helped Payne understand issues facing New York utilities and come up with helpful solutions together. Payne also chairs a Category Six Pesticide Training Committee where utilities, chemical companies, DOTs and other shareholders gather to develop annual pesticide training for right of way applicators in New York state.  Some other groups Payne has joined include CEATI, EPRI, The Right-of-way Stewardship Council (ROWSC) and the North American Transmission Forum.

Taking a Sustainable Approach

“Almost every utility has a sustainability group…” Payne explains. These groups or departments are paying attention to programs with a sustainable approach and reporting back to CEOs as well as corporate reporting to standards that track these indices, such as Dow Jones Sustainability Index.  One of the things Payne is focused on is sharing the sustainable benefits his programs bring so he can get better leverage and funding. Currently, Payne holds a partnership with the Davey Resource Group to work on an ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) program that measures the footprints of some of the equipment Payne’s company is using. The social aspect, Payne shared, deals with interacting with landowners and the public. By working with sustainability groups, the NYPA gets to look at the indices they report on and help his company get credit for some of these  targets through the benefits of his IVM program.

Looking Ahead: What’s in Store for Vegetation Management? 

From the first vegetation management plan to the implementation of herbicide standards, integrated vegetation management has continued to develop and change over the years. With
the ever-evolving technological landscape, it is inevitable for the industry to transform into a more digital space. The way the upcoming fourth generation of industry leaders is using technology is a good indicator of how the industry will change in the future. “If you want to see where technology is going, start watching fifteen-year-old kids out there… because they’re the ones that are going to bring that new technology to the table,” Lew says. He also believes that IVM will be practiced with a more sustainable approach and that “there’s going to be a lot more focus on protecting species out there.”

Some quotes have been modified for length and clarity.

Thanks for listening to another episode of Trees and Lines, sponsored by Iapetus Infrastructure Services

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If you have questions about efficient vegetation management solutions, please contact Iapetus Infrastructure Services. Our team of experts will support you through a wide range of vegetation and contractor management challenges. Don’t forget to leave a review if you enjoyed this week’s episode and follow our LinkedIn to stay updated on the latest news.

If you have questions about efficient vegetation management solutions contact Iapetus Infrastructure Services. Our team of experts will support you through a wide range of vegetation and contractor management challenges. Don’t forget to leave a review if you enjoyed this week’s episode and follow our LinkedIn to stay updated on the latest news!

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