American Electric Power (AEP, Columbus, Ohio, U.S.) man-ages vegetation on more than 186,000 miles (299,338 km) of distribution and 33,800 miles (54,396 km) of transmission lines in an 11-state operating area. The company's service territory, which stretches from Virginia to Texas, features wide variations in topography, line access and vegetation conditions. Additional challenges include the differing approaches to deregulation by 11 states, a shrinking labor pool, an increasing number of city and state ordinances, and a variety of management requirements for state and federally owned lands.

To successfully meet these challenges, AEP has adopted a strategy of employing a wide variety of vegetation management techniques and contracting methods, while also emphasizing stewardship on the lands crossed by its rights-of-way (R/Ws).

AEP's vegetation management program focuses on safety, service reliability, cost effectiveness and environmental stewardship. To accomplish these goals, AEP employs an integrated vegetation management program that seeks to optimize and balance these issues by using a variety of maintenance techniques to fit local needs and unique situations.

Part of the program philosophy is to extend the time between maintenance periods using techniques that provide a longer-term benefit. In addition to the standard trimming crews, some of the techniques employed are aerial, basal and high-volume herbicide applications and, where practical, mowing and mechanical trimming.

AEP was one of the first companies to use the aerial saw for aerial side trimming back in 1987. Using specialized contractor Aerial Solutions, which uses a helicopter with ten 2-ft (61-cm) saw blades mounted to the underside, has significantly improved productivity for side trimming distribution and transmission R/Ws in rural areas. Parts of the service territory presenting challenging terrain, such as eastern parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio, can be trimmed at one-fourth the cost when using the aerial saw instead of manual trimming.

AEP is striving to achieve the right balance of vegetation control and herbicide application to extend the period between maintenance cycles, while continuing to emphasize environmental stewardship.

The company was a charter partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program (PESP) at the program's inception in 1994. The goal of PESP is to reduce pesticide risk through the use of integrated pest management methods and best management practices. As a result of this partnership, AEP — while increasing the number of acres of R/Ws treated with herbicides — reduced the active ingredient applied per acre through the use of appropriate herbicides and selective application techniques. Additional business benefits are the 30% to 40% cost-reduction improvements using these techniques over traditional ground-spray methods.

To reduce the volume of future work in urban areas, AEP replaced thousands of conflicting trees with low-growing trees and shrubs. It also is using tree-growth regulators to lengthen the maintenance cycle in some areas when removal isn't an option.

In 1999, the EPA recognized AEP for its contributions to environmental stewardship with the Environmental Excellence Award. The award was presented to AEP for writing the “Environmental Stewardship Strategy for Electric Utility Rights-of-Way,” which the Edison Electric Institute adopted as its national strategy. The Edison Electric Institute is the association of the U.S.'s shareholder-owned electric utilities and industry affiliates and associates worldwide.

To further its environmental goals, AEP was also a charter member of the Project Habitat program, which seeks to improve wildlife habitat in R/Ws through the effective use of herbicides. The company took the wildlife habitat improvement one step further by instituting a cost-sharing program with landowners who want to improve the habitat of R/Ws on their properties. The program is administered with the cooperation of several state wildlife agencies. In the program, AEP reimburses landowners for the cost of improving wildlife habitat of AEP R/Ws and continues to reward them if the R/Ws retain their wildlife habitat.

AEP's professional foresters and contractors are committed to fostering the safest and most productive work culture possible. Contractors monitor crews to optimize safety, production and crew availability. The company's work tracking system, Right-of-Way Maintenance program, permits up-to-date monitoring of contractor production, productivity by work hour and cost per unit. In addition, foresters conduct contract tree crew field audits on a scheduled basis to ensure the accuracy of the data.

Unit-price contracts have been successful in some trimming programs and for aerial and ground applications of herbicides; however, most of the AEP system employs Time and Material (T&M) contracts, which generally offer little or no incentive for performance. Therefore, AEP developed agreements with contractors that have resulted in T&M contracts that promote safety, productivity and service reliability by employing incentives for superior performance and penalties where mutually agreed upon goals are not met. By aligning the contract's goals with company goals, AEP has achieved win-win results with both contractors and contract employees.

AEP promotes safety, reliable electric service and cost reductions by using a wide variety of vegetation management tools and techniques. AEP has accomplished this by using appropriate maintenance techniques and contracts to meet the challenges within its service territory. At the same time, AEP has been a partner and innovator in environmental stewardship programs and has applied for and received the Tree Line USA designation in four of the 11 operating companies. The National Arbor Day Foundation presents this award annually to utilities that practice, promote and document sound tree health.

Gary O'Neil, AEP, manager of system forestry, has 22 years of utility arboriculture experience having worked for various utility line-clearance contractors and in a variety of utility forestry positions for Public Service Co. of Oklahoma and Southwestern Electric Power Co. before the merger with AEP Co. He received the BA degree from Southern Nazarene University (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.) in 1993 and the MBA degree from Centenary College (Shreveport, Louisiana. U.S.) in 1998.