We all appreciate and value our natural environment, so it's important that we work to preserve it for generations to come, including the plants, animals and other living things. For Xcel Energy, protecting wildlife and special habitat is a priority and a key component of our environmental commitment, especially given the footprint of our operations—from our thousands of miles of transmission line right-of-ways to the acreage and waterways surrounding our generating plants and wind farms. We must coexist with a wide array of wildlife species, including animals, birds, bats and fish, along with their habitats.
We consider our impact on wildlife as we upgrade, design and build facilities. We typically conduct risk assessments and studies to determine potential impacts, and then take steps to help avoid and minimize those impacts. Xcel Energy has a long history of working proactively with wildlife agencies and conservationists on special programs, research studies and regulatory efforts that focus on protecting wildlife and their habitats. If we do have impacts, we have programs in place to help us document and report incidents to regulatory agencies, and then determine if we need to take corrective actions to prevent future issues.
We also support conservation efforts through the Xcel Energy Foundation and grants under our environmental focus area. As early as 1989, we began working with the nonprofit Raptor Resource Project to install nest boxes at several of our Minnesota generating plants to help restore the peregrine falcon to the Mississippi River Valley. With the program’s success, we installed web-based cameras to share the birds and their nesting habits. We currently have four bird cams that feature three different raptor species: bald eagles, great horned owls and peregrine falcons. The program has been tremendously popular with our customers, educators and others who are interested in the birds.
Xcel Energy was the first utility in the country to enter into a historic agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work on plans that proactively address potential issues involving birds and power-line structures, while also helping the company comply with federal avian protection laws.
In 2002, our utility operating companies entered into separate voluntary memorandums of understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work together to address avian issues by developing an Avian Protection Plan for each operating company. Transmission and distribution lines and equipment can be attractive to birds for roosting and building nests and can pose a collision hazard that may result in death or injury. In addition, migratory birds and bald and golden eagles are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Our Avian Protection Plans are a critical initiative for protecting birds and complying with these federal avian protection laws.
As part of its plan, each operating company developed a schedule for retrofitting facilities determined to pose a higher risk for bird injuries or deaths. Since then, we’ve had great success completing the retrofits in a timely manner, as called for under the plans. All of the initially identified retrofits have been completed in our Colorado, Texas and New Mexico service territories. In our Upper Midwest service territory, we have finished the highest priority lines and poles and are working through the next level of retrofit projects. Also, all of our design standards have been updated to include any new or modified construction to meet avian standards to prevent or mitigate incidents.
In Colorado, we have retrofitted almost 1,700 locations. In our Texas and New Mexico region, we have retrofitted about 750 locations to date and have plans to retrofit an additional 546 locations during routine maintenance activities in the coming years. In the Upper Midwest, we have retrofitted more than 200 locations so far. Also, the Avian Protection Plan for the Upper Midwest region has been updated to reflect current design standards to ensure the continued success of our protection measures.
Xcel Energy employees are required under the plans to report injured or dead birds using the company’s online reporting form. We then analyze whether reasonable retrofits or the installation of additional avian controls can minimize the risk of avian incidents at the location in the future. This reporting and assessment process is another step in complying with federal avian protection laws and demonstrating our commitment to taking responsible actions for avian protection.
Our transmission crews continue to assist the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with their annual bald eagle banding efforts in St. Paul. Prior to fledging, the eagles are retrieved from their nest by an Xcel Energy employee, with the aid of a bucket truck, and are transported to the ground for banding and collecting blood work by DNR personnel.
Wind energy continues to be an important and growing part of our energy mix, especially as we look to build and operate more company-owned wind farms. Through wind, we are reducing carbon and other emissions and improving the environment in ways that ultimately support and protect wildlife. But, wind farms must be properly assessed, sited, constructed, monitored and operated to minimize impacts to wildlife and protected species.
Before construction, we carefully select wind farm sites to help avoid impacts to birds and other wildlife. As part of this, we work with wind project developers, the USFWS and appropriate state wildlife and natural resource agencies on siting and permitting to ensure turbine locations are not in critical habitat for threatened and endangered species. If issues are identified, we work with the appropriate agencies to avoid or minimize impacts. This includes following the USFWS’s Land-based Wind Energy Guidelines, conducting multiple surveys and following other best practices.
Once a wind farm is built, we continue to perform studies and monitor wind turbine operations. Our wind farms have detailed Bird and Bat Conservation Plans, which provide a framework for how we study, monitor and minimize impacts over the life a project—from wind farm planning to construction to the operation and maintenance and decommissioning.
Despite all these efforts, wildlife can be unpredictable and there are no guarantees that there won’t be potential issues. We report injuries or fatalities to USFWS and appropriate state agencies to ensure that additional mitigation measures can be developed if necessary. If protected avian species build nests in close proximity to existing wind turbines, we will evaluate what actions are needed to avoid and minimize impacts and engage our state and federal wildlife experts to ensure we have taken the right steps.
We have also tested promising new technology at our Pleasant Valley Wind Farm in southern Minnesota with RES Americas, an independent wind operator. This technology includes the use of IdentiFlight to detect and identify eagles up to 1,000 meters and can automatically adjust turbine operations when tied to the SCADA system. We will continue to review and evaluate new and proven technologies as we grow our wind portfolio.
In addition to the wind farms we own, we also purchase a significant amount of wind capacity. We expect our third-party wind suppliers to perform similar permitting, reporting, reviews and studies of their wind farm operations.
Ospreys are federally protected raptors that have been successfully reintroduced in the Midwest, following decades of restoration and conservation efforts. Ospreys like distribution poles and transmission structures for nesting, but nests built on utility poles can pose a threat to the birds and may cause outages and damage to electrical equipment. Xcel Energy frequently erects alternative nest platforms that are taller than nearby lines in known osprey nesting areas to provide more attractive and safer nesting sites, while protecting system reliability. We also work closely with communities and civic groups to help them evaluate utility poles near high-quality osprey habitat, to identify alternative sites and assist with building and installing safe osprey nest platforms.
The decline of pollinator species, including bees, wasps and butterflies, is quickly becoming a critical environmental issue because of the resulting ecological and economic consequences, such impacts to food production. Utility right-of-way and fee-owned land including our substations and power plants present ideal opportunities for creating and enhancing pollinator habitat. We can modify land management practices, such as mowing frequency, reseeding mixtures and pesticide spraying practices, while still managing to maintain system safety and reliability.
With our Upper Midwest service territory coinciding with the Monarch Migration Corridor from Minnesota to Texas, we see tremendous potential to be a leader in creating and restoring pollinator habitat. We currently have more than 1,100 acres of active pollinator habitat in Minnesota and Wisconsin and more than 200 acres in development. The projects include nearly 25 active and potential pollinator habitat sites in our Minnesota and Wisconsin territories. Some of the habitat is located at our High Bridge Generating Plant in St. Paul and along our transmission line right-of-ways in Wisconsin.
Xcel Energy and the contractors we employ do not use chemicals that are harmful to beneficial insects in our vegetation management practices to control brush, trees and weeds on our rights-of-way and properties. This includes not using neonicotinoids, which is of special concern to people working to improve bee populations.
We also continue to be a partner in the conservation and protection of the Karner blue butterfly—a small, federally endangered butterfly that is limited to habitats which support wild lupine plants and are most prevalent in Wisconsin. In 1999, Xcel Energy partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other stakeholders to prepare an innovative statewide Habitat Conservation Plan. As part of the plan, we voluntarily agreed to various mitigation, land management and conservation commitments.
Xcel Energy continues to participate in annual meetings with the DNR and other utilities to evaluate ongoing conservation efforts. The staff also leads lupine and butterfly field surveys to ensure that our activities, such as transmission line rebuilds and new gas pipeline construction, will not result in adverse impacts to the Karner blue butterfly and its habitat.
In Colorado, Xcel Energy helped develop the Northern Eagle/Southern Routt Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan and is a signatory on the plan. This plan describes and sets forth a strategy for long-term management of the greater sage-grouse in concert with other resource values and land uses at a landscape scale. It serves as the beginning of a cooperative effort between private landowners and state and federal agencies to conserve greater sage-grouse and their habitats in Northern Eagle and Southern Routt counties.
Xcel Energy has voluntarily entered into a conservation agreement with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) pursuant to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-Wide Conservation Plan to mitigate impacts to this species of prairie grouse in areas where we operate. The USFWS listed the lesser prairie-chicken as a threatened species in 2014 due to the rapid decline in its population over the past 15 years. In 2015, a court vacated this listing and the USFWS is currently reexamining whether to relist the species.
Rangelands in our Colorado, New Mexico and Texas service territories serve as important habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, and under the conservation agreement, Xcel Energy implements conservation measures on enrolled properties that help protect this habitat. The company paid an enrollment fee of $60,000, and pays mitigation fees based on anticipated development activities on enrolled properties. For enrolled projects, we also follow avoidance, minimization and mitigation measures during operation, maintenance and new construction activities. These measures may include burying distribution lines within a certain distance of active breeding areas and using mono-pole construction in certain lesser prairie-chicken habitat areas.
The goal of the WAFWA conservation plan is to increase the population of the species from about 17,000 birds in 2013 to 67,000 birds across the range states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Since the program began, industry partners have committed more than $60 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for conservation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve more than 130,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements. The 2016 WAFWA survey showed population trends have been stable after five years of data collection.
Xcel Energy's Vegetation Management department manages millions of trees across about 50,000 miles of distribution right-of-way throughout our service territory. For more than 21 years, the Arbor Day Foundation has recognized us as a Tree Line USA utility for our commitment to proper tree pruning, planting and care.
We use industry best practices such as integrated vegetation management, which encompasses a progressive system of information gathering and helps us develop compliant solutions for controlling vegetation near electric and natural gas facilities. The practice helps us achieve our vegetation management goals in an environmentally sensitive, socially responsible and cost-effective manner.
In addition, pruning methods comply with standards set by the American National Standards Institute and the Tree Care Industry Association, which are endorsed by the International Society of Arboriculture.
Our practices seek to balance our customers’ need for reliable energy while respecting the natural environment that surrounds our facilities. For example, we work with landowners to determine if trees and other vegetation can be deemed compatible with safe operation of our electric lines.
In our efforts to comply with governmental regulation and to better ensure electric system reliability, our transmission line vegetation management program emphasizes the removal of incompatible vegetation to promote long-term vegetation control. In many cases, this means removing trees in areas where trees had been pruned in the past.
We employ manual and mechanized clearing where the vegetation is too tall for herbicide applications. When necessary, our contractors apply herbicides that are registered by EPA and the appropriate state regulatory agency. The herbicides are applied by licensed applicators.
Learn more about our vegetation management practices and planting the right tree in the right place.
See our bird cams.
Find more information about our Pollinator Initiative.
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