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Quick Fact: OPALCO’s Right-of-Way (ROW) Program

wildfire orcasWildfires are a regular threat to our built and natural environments. Climate change is accelerating that risk throughout the region and our remote, forested islands are vulnerable. OPALCO runs an aggressive right-of-way program to maintain a safe and reliable electrical system and to do our part for local wildfire prevention. Right of way clearing reduces the frequency of outages and makes it easier for crews to access to make repairs during outages situations.

Members can do their part by reporting trees or vegetation near power lines and by keeping vegetation and clutter away from the green transformer boxes on their properties. Working together, we can minimize our risk of power outages and wildfire danger.

  • OPALCO trims and/or removes trees and other vegetation under or near power lines.
  • OPALCO follows national standards for right-of-way clearing on the lines on both sides of the pole line as follows: 10′ for underground distribution lines, 25′ for overhead distribution lines, and 50’ for transmission lines.
  • OPALCO follows expert guidance from various state and federal agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife on best practices for timing and ROW maintenance methodologies.
  • More than 89% of OPALCO’s system is underground. The underground lines are the lower voltage distribution lines: the lines that feed your house. The higher voltage transmission lines will likely never be buried as the cost is very high and logistics are challenging often requiring wider easements from property owners and increased safety standards for burying high voltage lines (including burying them in concrete). The area would still need to kept clear for access to these lines for maintenance and repair. Burying transmission lines limits crew access, delays outage restoration and make repairs more difficult.
  • Tree wood removed for ROW clearing belongs to the property owners. Brush and limbs maybe chipped by the team.
  • If you see trees or brush close to power lines, call OPALCO and a team will come out and assist in removal or trimming. Please don’t attempt to cut a dead or dying tree that is leaning heavily toward OPALCO power lines. Call us!
  • If a tree is outside of ROW but is dangerously close to a power line, we will make every effort to work with the property owner and get permission to remove the tree that is deemed a potential hazard to our electrical system.
  • It is more cost-effective and preferred for OPALCO to remove small trees early before they become a problem.
  • Wildfire season is a critical problem in our region. West Coast utilities have faced serious risk from uncontrolled wildfires. OPALCO is doing its part to prevent wildfires. This also benefits the community by reducing power outages by making it easier and faster for the crew to repair these outages.

Since OPALCO was first established 85 years ago and we initially installed our power lines, the trees have continued to grow making them more of a hazard for the electrical lines.  Here is a graphical representation of OPALCO’s portion of SJC land that is maintained for ROW (0.7% of the land countywide):

Right of Way graphic

Current stats:

Total Line Miles
Overhead = 39
Underwater = 7.38

Overhead = 139
Underground = 1,088

Total Overhead = 178
Total underground/under water = 1,088

A little bit of history: When OPALCO was first established in 1937, the cement market looked to the San Juan Islands for their key ingredient “lime” ash to make cement. The lime had to be heated up via lime kilns, which were scattered through the San Juan’s. Many parts of the islands were clear cut as the trees were used to fire up the kilns. Back then, the OPALCO leadership didn’t have to worry much about ROW maintenance as most of ROW were fairly narrow due to minimal electric load and smaller “not effective for burning” trees. The rule of thumb was if a tree fell over, OPALCO was fine as long as the falling tree didn’t hit the electric line on the way down.

Additional resources:

wildfire graph


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