Woodpeckers attack: Utility poles beware!

NEW ULM — The electric distribution system in New Ulm is under attack from woodpeckers.

Over the last year, the New Ulm Electric Distribution Department discovered significant woodpecker damage to the wooden transmission line crossing the Minnesota River and connecting to the Fort Ridgely substation.

“It sounds quite humorous, but it is a recent phenomenon for us,” Utilities Director Patrick Wrase said. The wooden poles at the river crossing have been in place since the 1980s but no woodpecker damage has been noticed until the last few months.

“I don’t want call it an infestation, but we have a good population of woodpeckers in this area, and we’re dealing with the nesting of that group in our transmission poles across the river,” Wrase said.

Dan Pirsig with the Electrical Department gave a presentation about the woodpecker problem. Staff first noticed the damage on the poles crossing the river last fall. Repairs were conducted in January, and structural assessments were performed. The recommendation was to replace the poles.

Replacing the poles is estimated at $30,000 per transmission pole. At this time there are five poles with damage bringing replacement costs up to a total of $150,000. The wood poles would be replaced with steel poles to prevent further woodpecker damage. In addition, the steel poles cost less than the laminate wood poles

Currently there are only five poles with damage, but approximately 34 poles are at risk from woodpecker damage. The cost of replacing all at-risk poles would exceed $500,000.

Pirsig said this is a time-sensitive issue. This is an ongoing problem that will not go away. If the integrity of the poles is compromised, they could break off in a wind storm or blizzard.

Pirsig said the department will begin wrapping the poles in a mesh material as a preventive maintenance method and repair the damage already done.

Wrase said other cities have had success with the mesh wrapping. The wrapping can be purchased for under $100 and would cover multiple poles.

The replacement project will be budgeted in 2018 and details will be presented at that time.

In other news, the New Ulm Public Utilities Commission approved the execution of a settlement agreement with the Hutchinson Utilities Commission (HUC) to resolve the metering error and resulting over-billing for natural gas the Hutchinson Commission caused to the New Ulm Public Utilities Commission (NUPUC).

In April, a draft of the agreement was prepared and approved by the PUC. New Ulm City Attorney Roger Hippert submitted the document to HUC for consideration and has been informed the document will be accepted by HUC without any changes and can be considered the final settlement agreement.

The settlement calls for a $1,298,645.98 payment from HUC to NUPUC. Once received, the $1.3 million will go into a fund to replenish the gas departments reserves.

“The additional expenses have been paid out to our gas supplier throughout this process,” Wrase said. The cost of this overcharge was not passed on to utility rates, but reserve funds were used. This payment will cover the loss to gas reserves.

The payment from Hutchinson does not resolve the entire metering issue. At the close of the meeting, the PUC entered a closed session to discuss possible litigation related to unpaid unaccounted-for gas transported on the Fairfax gas pipelines to the Heartland Corn Products ethanol plant.

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