Weather-related blackouts due to fallen trees have become a norm in the United States. Customers across the country have faced this ordeal on a regular basis and so have power restoration workers. Weather-related power outages due to vegetation risks and hazards have been a constant challenge for power utilities. Power utilities have worked relentlessly to ensure vegetation-related outages can be avoided, but it’s never been an easy task to achieve.
Why is vegetation management vital?
Vegetation management, in expert terminology, is the targeted control and elimination of unwanted vegetation. It includes hazard tree identification and removal, implementing strategies to minimize the establishment of incompatible species under and near power lines and the control of weeds. Vegetation management is a serious affair. It is more than just trimming trees, it is making power lines safer for everyone.
According to an article published by the Energy Department, between 2003 and 2012, an estimated 679 widespread power outages occurred due to severe weather. Over this period, weather-related outages are estimated to have cost the U.S. economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion.
In addition to power outages, power lines have also ended up triggering wildfires. High winds can blow nearby trees branches which can come in contact with power lines, sparking fires. Strong winds can also snap wooden distribution line poles, causing live wires to fall onto nearby dry grass causing fires.
The rise in blackouts and powerline-induced wildfires have highlighted the sorry state of affairs and also negligence on part of some power utilities. That’s also why there has been increased scrutiny from regulators, legislators, activists, media and customers regarding the inefficiency of vegetation management practices.
5 reasons why vegetation management is not going as planned
Power utilities have been managing vegetation along power lines for several decades now. It’s nothing new for them. But that might be one of the major reasons why vegetation management hasn’t been an effective and efficient exercise. From the use of traditional and archaic methods to routine and unoptimized fixed cycles, there are a lot of problems in the present scenario that have cost utilities millions of dollars in losses.
- Manual procedures – Most often vegetation management is a manual process, consisting of manual patrol for inspection of hazard trees, trim decisions, and post-work audits. There is a shortage of trained workforce leading to poor efficiency which further increases the chances of shortcomings and more outages. If we talk about service-level contracts, it is seen that often there are a lot of repeat work orders along the same feeders for activities such as trimming, herbicides, asset maintenance and the like.
- Fixed annual cycles – Most power utilities find themselves relying on traditional fixed trim cycles which usually vary between 4 and 8 years. Trim cycles are planned and a contract is awarded at a feeder level, resulting in a lot of redundancy and reduced reliability. These cyclic and repetitive fixed trims are essentially an unoptimized method of vegetation management. There are instances where there is excessive maintenance along feeders that have slow growth of vegetation and vice versa. The whole system is, therefore, inefficient and unscientific.
- Poor visibility of geographically dispersed assets – Power lines in the United States are geographically dispersed and span up to 5.7 million miles. As mentioned above, most power utilities perform manual vegetation management method and this makes it extremely difficult to patrol and carefully monitor the growth of vegetation along tens of thousands of miles. Not only does this imply poor visibility of vegetation growth and asset health, but it also means that they have very little visibility on the hazards and risks along the stretch. This, in turn, leads to reactive maintenance work which should be avoided at all costs.
- Laggard tech usage – Laggard tech usage coupled with archaic methods is yet another major challenge faced by power utilities. At a time when we are stepping into the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, which is enabling a transformation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices combined with the latest smart technology, the hesitance of power utilities to adopt new technology is uncalled for. The use of remote sensing technology, predictive analytics and Artificial Intelligence is revolutionizing vegetation management. These technologies can help utilities predict the growth of vegetation in advance and offer full visibility of assets from space. But how many utilities are actually adopting these technologies? The answer is very few.
- Expensive – Vegetation management is frequently the single largest line item of annual operations and maintenance budgets, exceeding $100 million annually in many larger utilities. The bottom line is that annual expenses incurred are very high and most of it cannot be capitalized. How can utilities reduce the costs and perform far more efficient vegetation management remains the biggest concern.
Identifying these 5 challenges is the first step towards finding solutions to a more efficient vegetation management. While traditional vegetation management has not been effective enough, utilities are facing increased costs, dissatisfied customers and reputations damaged beyond measure.
To combat all of the above-mentioned problems, power utilities should use cutting-edge technology like AI and satellite monitoring to gain complete control over their assets and the vegetation around them. This can play a significant role in transforming the current scenario for good. They can very efficiently pinpoint troublesome vegetation areas near utility equipment, and merge historic and real-time weather data to offer clear snapshots of otherwise obscure trouble spots. But AI actually goes beyond utility management by providing predictive analytics that can reveal impending supply and demands issues and potential equipment failures.
By implementing AI, utilities can have the comprehensive insight they will need to satisfy potential customers and regulators, better manage and preserve assets, and avoid power outages and wildfire situations in the future. And that’s exactly what AiDash does. Know more about the AiDash Intelligent Vegetation Management System and how it combines satellite intelligence with ground truth to provide increased visibility on the overgrowth of vegetation around transmission and distribution grids.