A bear of a line project
Minnkota’s Power Delivery crews need to overcome many challenges to complete work on a unique northern Minnesota landscape.
It was snow globe situation.
On the final day of February, just a couple miles south of the Canada-Minnesota border, the dense evergreens of Smokey Bear State Forest wore the décor of a Koochiching County snowfall. In the absence of wind, the fluffed-up flakes fell in no hurry whatsoever. The scene contained within the orb of remote silence was surreal.
But after days of site-setting for the installation of a 120-foot galvanized steel transmission structure, Minnkota’s line crew didn’t really recognize the poetry of the moment.
“Today we just have to set the top and bring the wires into it. Then it’s a lot of cleanup to do,” said Minnkota lineworker Weston Meyer, harnessing up for the bucket truck. “Honestly, it’s just kind of like another day for us.”
Pole 545 was the last of several H-frame structures the team would raise along the 230-kilovolt (kV) Moranville-Littlefork line this winter. They will need to wait until next winter to finish the maintenance replacement project of eight total structures, which will remove 75-foot aluminum lattice poles for the taller steel poles. The warm season just won’t do for the undertaking. Smokey Bear State Forest is beautiful, but boggy, making wheeled travel in the marshy right of way impossible in the summer.
Even when the 3-mile-long corridor freezes in the winter, the line is still inaccessible without some special tools and creative planning.
“A contractor tried to come in and clear a path from the east, a much shorter distance,” said Minnkota line superintendent David Lagge, pointing to an area 200 feet to the east of the site – a 3-4- foot deep beaver pond. “They fell through with the dozer and abandoned that route.”
Minnkota used its own team instead to carve a temporary “ice road” from the west, over the frozen bog making up the 3 miles of line corridor. Utility workers Pat Plain and Kevin Holweger and lineworker Kelly Hebl worked several days plowing the path with a bulldozer. Plain then spent nearly a month maintaining and fortifying the road so that it was safe, packed and traversable for the upcoming convoy of bucket trucks, cranes and semis.
There are many areas in Minnkota’s northern Minnesota service area where sloughs and wetlands pose a challenge to power delivery. But Smokey Bear is a rare beast.
“That I know of, we’ve never built a so-called ice road to this extent,” Lagge said.
Built to last
Minnkota engineer and project lead Brenden LaHaise and his team specifically chose H-frame replacement structures fit for the wet northland.
“Because of our choice to install a direct embed structure, galvanized steel made the most sense for the environment they’re being installed into,” LaHaise said. “The old aluminum structures are on concrete footing that are not in the best condition. Over time, those concrete footings can become compromised, which is a problem facing other areas of this line.”
The new structures will also enhance the line’s clearance, securing Minnkota’s compliance requirements.
LaHaise says the steel structures will likely continue to work their way into future projects in both Minnesota and North Dakota, and this installation provides the crew with preparative knowledge of the equipment.
“It’s always good to have the crew get experience,” he said. “If we have a storm happen where a line goes down, then we have some of these waiting in our pole yard. They already understand how they are raised compared to the old ones.”
The replacement of pole structure 545 required additional collaboration with transmission neighbor Minnesota Power. The line’s ownership transitions to the Duluth-based provider at the edge of the state forest. Through a series of meetings and phone calls, the two utilities ensured a safe and efficient project. “We want to make sure we were all on the same page in terms of project coordination so we’re not stepping on each other’s toes,” LaHaise explained.
With all of the complications entwined in the upgrade of 545, one wouldn’t fault Minnkota’s crews for cringing at the idea of taking on the project. However, Minnkota’s crews see things a little bit differently than most.
“The part I’m most proud of is the fact that they came out completely open to doing this on terrible conditions, in the winter. There was no question,” Lagge said, watching his power delivery team through the snow-globe snowfall. “When this project came up, I was asked if I wanted contractors to do it. I asked the guys, and they said, ‘Oh, no, we’ll do it.’ That’s even though they’re away from the family and everything else. They were all in on it.”
MAIN IMAGE: Minnkota crews remove an old aluminum transmission structure from a line near International Falls, Minn., on Feb. 28. (Minnkota)