Calling all detectives! Director V speaking here. We have to “bee” pro-active!
The human world depends on the transmission of electricity for their survival. Without it, life would be a huge challenge for us. But did you know that delivering electricity uses a lot of land? In the U.S., there are approximately 200,000 miles of electric transmission lines that travel across the landscape. And to ensure electricity continues flowing safely and reliably to where we need it, these high-voltage lines need room away from tall trees and other surrounding objects. Otherwise, they could fall or come in contact with the lines and cause a power outage! That’s why transmission lines are located on tall structures and built on open land corridors called rights-of-way.
Huh … well it sounds like we have taken care of our needs. But who looks after the natural world and the other “environmental citizens” that live in those rights-of-way? That’s what environmental managers do! Environmental managers work for electric utilities to make sure the electricity gets delivered in a safe and reliable manner and that the land in the right-of-way is used in a way that allows the ecosystem it travels over to thrive.
Hmmm…. So what is an ecosystem? It’s a community of living and non-living things (such as water and earth) within a specific geographic area. It’s important our ecosystems remain healthy and biodiverse because they supply us with natural services that humans may never be able to replace:
- Clean air. Did you know the diversity of terrestrial and marine plant life around the world generates the oxygen we breathe? They do it by photosynthesis, which is a process that converts sunlight into energy. Plants also absorb and breakdown the tons of pollutants and carbon dioxide that fuel climate change!
- Clean water. Wetlands are special ecosystems that can clean hazardous materials from the water and soil. Think of it like a purifier! Moreover, roots from healthy forests can also reduce flooding and erosion by absorbing water and preventing sediments and contaminants from affecting water quality.
- Nutrient-rich Soil. Soil is actually rich with biodiversity because there are millions of microbes like algae, fungi, bacteria, and arthropods living in the soil. Certain microbes are decomposers that recycle waste in the ground and turn it back into nutrients. If we didn’t have them, we would be surrounded by mounds and mounds of trash! STINKY. Others can help nutrients cycle through the soil and provide nitrogen and other essential nutrients for plant health.
- Natural Resources. Diverse ecosystems can supply us with various raw materials such as wood, minerals, and gases that we use for shelter and survival.
When we humans use land to build things, it interrupts the ecosystem. So when transmission lines are built or repaired … environmental managers will work to eliminate or minimize disruptions in the ecosystem and help maintain or restore biodiversity in an area where construction occurs. This includes looking after the organisms who live there …
Take pollinators for example. Pollinators are essential for our food. Did you know that one out of every three bites of food you eat is there because of pollinators? That’s because 35% of food crops we consume depend on pollinators to reproduce. Pollinators are critters that transfer pollen from one plant to another and aid in plant reproduction, such as bats, bees, birds, butterflies, beetles, and some small mammals. Because of them, ecosystems thrive and produce more natural resources! Yet, pollution, chemicals, and climate change are decreasing pollinator numbers drastically.
There are actions we can take to create ideal environments that help pollinators thrive. One is to develop more areas where pollinators like to live.
There are millions of square miles of electric transmission right-of-way on the planet, and while not a great place for growing trees, they are perfect for creating habitats for pollinators! Pollinators love flowering plants that are native to an area. Native plants are great for the ecosystem and they grow low enough to the ground that they will not interfere with power lines. Electric utilities in the U.S. are working together to plant native species in rights-of-way for pollinator habitats. What a great solution!
Birds also play a critical role in the ecosystem. But sometimes, birds like to build nests on electric transmission structures because they resemble natural places where they like to live; they are high in the air and often close to water or other good feeding grounds. However, birds and electricity are not a good combination. Electric structures can be dangerous to birds. If they come in contact with live power lines … zap! So, to be good avian stewards, when birds nest too close to or on transmission lines environmental managers will look to balance the nesting needs of the bird with keeping it safe, which sometimes means building platforms or structures to elevate or shift the birds safely away from the lines that deliver electricity.
Clean energy is also growing. Solar, wind and storage technology for renewable energy generation are developing and being implemented more and more all the time. As we move to clean, renewable resources, it is changing the landscape of the electric grid. Electric transmission will take on a new shape, and that means creating new pathways for the energy to get from where it’s generated to where it’s needed. So we’ll need even more environmental managers and engineers in the future to help utilities make sure our energy is delivered in a way that coexists with our essential ecosystems.
But how do environmental managers protect other sensitive organisms? Or the water and soils in our ecosystems? And how do vegetation managers stay on top of the constantly-growing vegetation in our rights-of-way?
To find out how these managers help electricity coexist with the natural world, have a looksee at the video above. And if you download the lesson activity or poke around the “Learn More” tab, you will find more pathways to becoming a better environmental steward.