March 9, 2015

UConn, Southington manufacturer team to battle animal-induced power outages

PHOTO | Kevin Burgio '10 (CLAS)/UConn
PHOTO | Kevin Burgio '10 (CLAS)/UConn
A pair of Monk Parakeets sitting on a powerline just outside their nest in Stratford. The nests can weigh up to 200 pounds or more.

The record-breaking snow across much of Connecticut this winter likely has many state residents thinking inspirationally about the return of migrating birds this spring. But one bird species in particular has utility companies concerned: the Monk Parakeet.

These tiny birds — which have a history of building their nests on utility poles — have caused big problems and expenses for power companies. Monk Parakeet nests can weigh more than 200 pounds and have caused power outages in established breeding grounds like Florida, New York and Connecticut.

But new research from UConn — lead by Ph.D. student Kevin Burgio and his faculty advisor, professor Margaret Rubega — has not only shed light on the nest-building habits of Monk Parakeets, but also could lead to new technology that deals with the problem.

UConn has teamed up with Southington-based Midsun Group Inc. to produce a device that will better protect utility poles from the migrant birds.

Midsun, founded in 1992, makes animal migration products that protect substation, transmission and distribution lines from potential predators and they're hoping their latest gadget, which is currently in the development stage, will soon be piloted by Orange-based United Illuminating Co. and deployed by other utilities, said Sabrina Santilli, Midsun's marketing manager.

"Animal-caused outages are typically one of the top three reasons for power outages across the country," Santilli said.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, power outages cause approximately $80 billion in losses in the U.S. each year and an estimated 11 percent — or $8.8 billion worth — are caused by wildlife, including birds, snakes and squirrels.

In Florida — over a five-year period — utility companies removed more than 3,000 Monk Parakeet nests at a cost of more than $4.7 million.

In 2009, more than 69 nests were removed from utility poles by United Illuminating in Stratford, West Haven and Hamden. That effort provided the foundation for UConn's research, which studied — over the course of a year — how these South American-native birds rebuilt their nests. The study's findings were published in the online journal PeerJ review in 2014.

Burgio's research found that the key to preventing the nest building is to disrupt the bird's access to power lines in the earliest stages.

Although Monk Parakeets build nests where the power line intersects with the utility pole, they typically always land on the wire and use it as a walkway to the pole; they don't land on the utility pole itself.

Those research findings have formed the basis for a proprietary commercial device that Midsun is creating with UConn that would prevent the birds from walking over the last foot or so of the line to the pole, said Rita Zangari, executive director of UConn's Technology Incubation program, which oversees research projects designed to create business solutions for a number of business sectors.

"Knowledge sharing and technology transfer is an important aspect of UConn's role," Zangari said, noting that the school provided Midsun with exclusive access to its Monk Parakeet research.

Animal-related prevention technology has become a significant part of Midsun's business, Santilli said.

Although she wouldn't provide specific details on the latest device they are developing, she said Midsun expects it to attract the interest of large utility providers like United Illuminating, which has faced challenges in addressing bird nests in certain communities.

"Animal contacts [with our power systems] are an ongoing concern," said Ed Crowder, a United Illuminating spokesperson. "Squirrels and other animals routinely travel along our lines and, at times, even chew on components of our systems. That can cause power outages for customers and generally end poorly for the animals."

In 2012, Crowder said, lightning struck a bird's nest that caught fire in Milford, knocking out power in the neighborhood for several hours.

He noted United Illuminating, which has yet to evaluate Midsun's Monk Parakeet-related product, takes preventive measures twice a year to minimize the pesky birds' impact.

The company's current strategy is to remove the nests each spring and fall, Crowder said, noting the parakeets seem to be "taking the hint."

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