BGE hopes to communicate better on helicopter program

It’s not a bird or a plane.

Instead, it’s just Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., flying a helicopter 150 feet from the ground.

For decades, the Maryland-based utility has flown choppers above its power lines to survey for vegetation overgrowth and damage on the wires.

Over the last few weeks, many Carroll County residents in particular may have noticed a helicopter hovering just over power lines.

The company, like others across the country, has been using helicopters to inspect transmission lines for more than 20 years, said Aaron Koos, a BGE spokesman.

This time around, many residents had no idea what was going on in their community.

Koos said they learned a valuable lesson in letting the public know about their aerial operations.

“I think we’ve learned we need to do a better job communicating about it,” he said.

The helicopter, contracted by the utility at a cost of a few hundred thousand dollars a year, is equipped with high-resolution cameras designed to quickly spot wear and tear on utility lines.

The camera work, which BGE started this year, probably raised some eyebrows because of how low the helicopter flew, Koos said. He said BGE did reach out to officials in Carroll County to let them know what was going on, but got some calls anyway after choppers started hovering over the lines there.

Using helicopters is faster, particularly when power lines straddle a busy highway that would otherwise need to be shut down in parts, he said. For example, helicopters will be in Anne Arundel County this weekend,doing work along I-97 near Crownsville, and residents have been notified.

Regina Davis, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Public Service Commission, said utilities often use helicopters to access lines in areas of the state with more challenging terrain, where it can be harder to maneuver equipment on the ground, Davis said.

“It’s not uncommon,” Davis said. “Usually, it’s after there’s been some type of storm event.”

Utility companies have to obtain a certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration to run this type of operation, called an external load operation.

These types of operations are done across the country, said Arlene Salac, a spokeswoman for the FAA.

Koos said BGE will be using the high-resolution cameras on 20 percent of its lines each year. Groups of lines will be surveyed every five years.

By late summer, BGE will begin using thermovision cameras to examine the heat of the utility lines and see which ones need to be repaired or replaced.

Koos said the new technology saves money in the long run, because potential problems are spotted more quickly.

“It’s hard to say how much it saves, because it depends on how much damage there is,” he said. “Overall, we think this is the most efficient.”

Kirk Mantay, habitat restoration manager for the Anne Arundel County based-South River Federation, said helicopter use by utilities may have become more common after the derecho in June 2012.

The storm caused widespread power outages, and stricter laws were passed ensuring property owners kept vegetation overgrowth in check, Mantay said.

“The law gives companies like BGE more authority to use helicopters to observe what’s going on,” he said.

Mantay added that BGE only considers two types of overgrowth: vegetation or trees. There are many things in between.

Aggressive tactics for cutting overgrowth can have an impact on the environment, potentially causing more erosion, a rise in mosquitoes or additional property damage.

“There are many types of vegetation that don’t harm power lines,” Mantay said. “The key is letting them thrive where they need to.”

While helicopters might be a different approach, Mantay said it is an interesting technique to survey hard to reach powerline locations.

Anne Arundel County Councilman Chris Trumbauer said sometimes finding overgrowth and erosion issues can best be found by foot.

Trumbauer, who worked with the West Rhode Riverkeeper in Anne Arundel County, is planning a $20,000 restoration project on a stream near BGE power lines.

The work was commissioned after the organization a massive erosion problem that  threatened the stability of the structure.

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