Trimming Tomorrow’s Problems

July 26, 2021


In 2016, Stearns Electric Association began an aggressive vegetation management project. After four years of hard work, the results are in: tree-related outages across the Cooperative’s service territory reduced by over 60%.

When put together, trees and power lines mix about as well as oil and water. Trees cannot only cause downed power lines in storms, endangering the lives of people who live, work and play nearby, but also grow into power lines, causing outages for members, impacting electrical distribution system reliability, and posing safety threats to linemen.

In 2016, tree-related outages were steadily rising throughout Stearns Electric’s service territory and the Cooperative realized it needed to act quickly to clean up the trees and brush growing into, or too close to, power lines.

Stearns Electric hired ACRT, an independent utility vegetation management company, to assess the Cooperative’s Right-of-Way (ROW). ROW refers to a strip of land underneath or around power lines that electric utilities have the right and responsibility to keep clear. ACRT used mathematical algorithms to analyze over 2,600 miles of Cooperative power line and created a detailed four-year rotation plan to clear ROW throughout Stearns Electric’s service territory.

Although clearing Right-of-Way has always been important to the Cooperative, finding time for line crews to clear the trees and brush growing into thousands of miles of power line is nearly impossible.

After the results of the study were reviewed, Stearns Electric once again hired ACRT to work with Carr’s Tree Service in 2017 to implement the four-year ROW management plan. Since then, the Cooperative has invested over eight million dollars and will clear over 2,680 miles of ROW in the first rotation.

“Unfortunately, the initial four-year rotation has not been completed just yet as the number of problem trees was significantly higher than the original estimate. However, by August, crews will begin working on the second rotation,” Erica Hippen, Stearns Electric’s Arborist, explained.

“Clearing Right-of-Way is critical to keeping our members’ lights on. Before the project began, nearly 25% of the Cooperative’s power outages were caused by trees,” Manager of Operations Glenn Blommel said. “Since we started implementing the work, we have seen a decrease in tree-related outages for Stearns Electric members of 62.4%.”

Maintaining ROW is a never-ending job for the Cooperative. After four-and-a-half years of intense work, it’s already time to revisit the sections of lines cleared in 2017. However, since the Cooperative was so aggressive with its initial ROW clearing project, that work has paved the way for more efficient and consistent tree clearing cycles into the future.

Additionally, the Co-op has hired its own arborist to manage ROW clearing. Erica Hippen is no stranger to Stearns Electric as she formerly worked with the Co-op through ACRT. As Stearns Electric’s Operations department determined the next steps for the program, hiring a full-time employee to manage the ongoing ROW program and help maintain the work that has been done made sense. Erica was the perfect fit for the position as she already had experience managing ROW throughout the Cooperative’s service territory.

Erica continues to work with the Operations department, our member-consumers, Carr’s Tree Service and Central Applicators to clear problem trees and brush away from power lines in order to help maintain system reliability for members throughout our service territory.

“I plan to use the lessons I have learned during the first ROW clearing rotation to be even more efficient at addressing member needs and problem vegetation,” she explained.

“I strive to be the connecting voice between Stearns Electric and each member. I make decisions on the ground based on what the power line needs and what the member wants. I compromise whenever possible, but stand firm when I must,” she concluded. “I enjoy representing both parties and finding solutions that work for everyone.”

We realize that cutting and trimming trees on your property is not always ideal. The Cooperative works closely with members to only remove and trim what is needed for the safety of the public and our line workers, and to maintain the reliability of our distribution system.

One way you can help is by not planting trees within at least 25 feet of power lines. If you plan to plant a medium-sized or larger tree, plant at least 40 feet away from power lines. You can download our “Right Tree Brochure” on our website,

Throughout 2021, you can learn more about the Cooperative’s vegetation management program through an infographic series on page 7 of the Power Connection.

If you have any questions about our Right-of-Way program, please don’t hesitate to call us at (800) 962-0655.