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Vultures may be a big part of nature’s cleanup crew, but when they take up residence in an electrical substation, they pose a significant threat to reliable electric delivery. Because the birds are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, getting them to move out is more complicated than you may realize.
Overall, animal incidents rank about fourth in causes of electrical outages. However, with a major facility like a substation at risk, hundreds of households and businesses could lose power for hours or even days in a worse-case scenario.
Crews had noticed the birds, along with the foul-smelling stench they leave behind after they go on their daily forage for carrion, at TVEC’s Walton Substation in December. And sure enough, on a rainy day, the buildup of bird feces on the substation’s insulators was enough to knock out power for more than two hours.
“It was burning and crackling all over that tower,” said Gary Sherrard, TVEC manager of substations. “Over time, it could really damage this equipment and take out the power for a lot longer than that. Then you have not only the cost of replacing equipment, you have a lot of people out of power for a long time.”
The solution to such a smelly problem involved a professional from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, some pyrotechnics, and the patience of the substation’s neighbors.
“These birds have to land every night, so the key is to keep them from landing for a while, until they move on to another roosting place,” said Greg Miller, a USFWS wildlife biologist.
Over the course of two weeks in March, Miller spent the twilight hours firing loud blasts each time the birds wanted to land. And, as he had hoped, the efforts seem to have worked. What was estimated to be more than 300 birds have taken up residence elsewhere, and the damage has been minimized.
“It really takes a consistent effort to keep animals from threatening the reliability of our operations,” Sherrard said. “We have snake protection around these facilities, and a certain amount of protection is built into the equipment itself by how it is engineered and built. Unfortunately you still get occasions where an animal can get into the wrong place, but things like this vulture group is really something you have to address quickly.”