Animals go on a power trip

Avian interference common cause of power outages this summer

If it’s not the squirrels, it’s the eagles.

 

Alaska Electric Light and Power Company says animals have caused multiple power outages this summer, the latest instance being Wednesday night when an eagle dropped trash on a power line near the Lemon Creek Breeze In close to the landfill.

The food landing on the line caused a “loud bang” heard as far away as Costco — a sound associated with something coming into contact with an energized power line — and knocked out power for all 10,020 AEL&P customers north of Lemon Creek, said AEL&P spokeswoman Debbie Driscoll.

“It took out all the feeders north of that spot, so Lemon Creek, Auke Bay, the Valley, Lena, Tee Harbor, that whole area north of Lemon Creek,” she said, noting all power was restored within 44 minutes.

There have been seven instances so far this year where animals have tripped the power by coming into contact with the lines. Sometimes, the interference can be deadly to the animals.

On June 5, a squirrel knocked out power on Lena Loop Road, affecting about 350 customers for 20 minutes. The day before, a pigeon flew into a power line on Point Stephens Road; the incident only affected one customer.

Driscoll said squirrels are the most common “menace” to the system. They climb up the power poles and jump on the lines. Sometimes, they chew through the lines.

“They do a lot of different things,” she said. “They’re resourceful.”

Avian fatalities caused by flying into AEL&P’s power lines are a cause of concern to the company, especially given Juneau’s large bald eagle and raven population. Although the bald eagle is no longer listed as a threatened and endangered species, they still have special legal protections under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act.

There have been two power line-related bird fatalities this year: a raven that flew into a line and died in May, and an eagle that did the same thing in January.

There was a slight decrease in the number of power line-caused avian fatalities last year, AEL&P said. 2013 saw six avian deaths (three eagles, one raven, one crow and one grouse) compared to 10 avian deaths in 2012 (five eagles, three ravens and two crows).

Driscoll said the decrease in deaths may be due to the increase of plastic yellow coils the company is placing on power lines, in the hopes that the bright visual cue will alert the birds to the lines in time.

AEL&P has also considered burying power lines in certain portions of town where eagle numbers are greater, such as near the landfill, a popular food source for the opportunistic feeders. But AEL&P at this time considers the effort too expensive, Driscoll said. It would cost about $10 million to bury one line, and it’s also more expensive to do repairs on lines underground, she said.

“It’s one of those things where we’re constantly weighing the cost,” she said.

AEL&P has gotten into legal trouble before for affecting bald eagle habitat. The company was indicted in 2008 on a misdemeanor federal charge for “wanton” destruction of a bald eagle’s nest during the Lake Dorothy construction project.

It was embarrassing to the company, and was resolved by a plea deal that required AEL&P to pay $75,000 in fines and restitution, according to court records and previous Empire reports.

In a phone interview Thursday morning, Driscoll noted that AEL&P does its best to prevent the death of eagles, but that it’s a constant concern that they could fly into the power lines.

“They have such a wide wingspan, sometimes they can touch two lines at once, and the biggest issue is when they’re chasing each other in the sky,” she said, adding that she counted 12 eagles outside her office during an interview.

As far as the eagle that dropped trash on the power line Wednesday night, Driscoll said the bird was not harmed. She recalled a similar instance that happened last summer when an eagle dropped its catch of halibut onto a line.

“There’s not much we can do to prevent that other than hoping that the eagle has a better grip,” she said.

She added, “Squirrels this time of the year are an issue, and eagles are an issue all the time.”

The hour-long power outage last Friday was not caused by an animal, but an accidental relay trip. AEL&P was doing work at Lake Dorothy and was testing a power line when a circuit breaker opened, which caused 16 other feeders to subsequently go down. That outage affected about 8,000 customers from Lena Cove all the way out the road.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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