Helicopter installs power lines 
with new energy projects in mind

One of about 120 H-shaped steel structures, each about 70- to 140-feet high, are part of an Xcel Energy project constructing a 20.5-mile, 230-kilovolt transmission line between Rifle and Parachute.

A transmission line project that will support future energy development and general electricity demand in the region got a literal lift this week when a specialized helicopter was put into service to install about 90 towers.

Xcel Energy is constructing a 20.5-mile, 230-kilovolt transmission line between substations in Rifle and Parachute, in a $28 million project that also involves making upgrades to the substations themselves.

The project comes in response to anticipated growing future electricity demand in the region, including from oil and gas development. While little drilling is currently occurring due to low natural gas prices, Xcel is responding to the expectation of activity picking up at some point.

“I think all of us really understand how (energy development) does change, how it is cyclical, and we certainly want to be ready to provide for that growth when it happens and in advance of when it happens, instead of trying to figure out how to do it after the fact,” said Kelly Flenniken, Xcel’s area manager.

Part of the demand related to gas development comes from gas compression equipment. While companies can use gas-driven compressors, Xcel says electric-driven compressors often are used due to their lower pollution emissions, reduced noise and the competitive pricing of electricity.

The project started in June and the line is scheduled to be put in service by November. It includes about 120 H-shaped steel structures about 70- to 140- feet high. Oregon-based Erickson used its Aircrane helicopter to install about 90 of them due to a lack of roads in much of the area, which involves a mix of private and Bureau of Land Management land.

The structures weigh between 6,000 and 10,000 pounds, or three to five tons. The Aircrane has a rated lift capacity of 25,000 pounds, although high elevations and high temperatures reduce that capacity.

Using two pilots up front and a rear-facing pilot who helps guide each structure into place, the aircraft can set at least three structures each hour. “It’s pretty impressive, watching this particular (helicopter) do its job,” Flenniken said. Xcel also is using a smaller helicopter to help in installing lines between the structures.

Access issues also have created other challenges for the project, in some cases requiring crews to hike into sites where the towers were to be placed and hand-digging holes, one of them 22 feet deep.

Flenniken said Xcel maintains more than 20,000 miles of transmission lines in 10 states, and 4,600 miles in Colorado, so the 20-mile project is a pretty small one.

Still, it’s a significant investment in the region, “and just quite frankly a pretty cool project” because of the accessibility challenges workers have had to overcome, she said.


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