My top 5 Trees and Utilities takeaways — from the city of bridges

Michelle Persinko

AiDash Utility Specialist

Pittsburgh hosts 1,000 attendees at Trees and Utilities Conference

How important is vegetation management for today’s utilities?

Very — if attendance at Utility Arborist Association’s and Arbor Day Foundation’s recent Trees and Utilities Conference 2023 is any indicator.

I was pleased to hear during mid-conference announcements that more than 1,000 vegetation management, urban forestry, and other industry professionals were mingling and sharing information amid this year’s booths and sessions. Thought leaders and vendors weighed in on all aspects of vegetation management, from machinery and herbicides to consultants and staffing, to technical solutions.

The discussions I heard throughout the conference shared a theme of examining where utilities can move forward in what one attendee called “an industry that’s driven to do the right thing.”

Here are 5 areas I saw garnering interest in sessions and on the trade-show floor and ways to put words into action:

Integrated vegetation management: Successes are boosting its popularity.

I noticed that various utilities at the conference talked about the benefits of integrated vegetation management (IVM). They indicated that IVM is being recognized and adopted at a larger scale across U.S. utilities than ever before.

One presenter shared their co-op’s experience with incorporating IVM practices, specifically selective herbicide treatments, into their routine maintenance practices along ROWs. Use of selective herbicides reduced the impact on desirable vegetation, while targeting the less desirable vegetation. The small process change enabled the co-op to lengthen their routine ROW mowing activities from 3 years to 6 years.

I would also note that a new category of software — intelligent vegetation management — promises to take the successes of integrated VM to the next level. AiDash introduced software that incorporates the major tenants of intelligent vegetation management: an end-to-end VM solution that extends from analysis and planning to execution, including all integrated VM elements of the process.

Take action

  • Consider where IVM control methods — bio, chem, cultural, manual, mechanical — could be incorporated within your utility as a utility vegetation management (UVM) best practice.
  • Ask how and where intelligent vegetation management technology can add to your IVM adoption and overall UVM program.
Gathering data at scale is good. Putting that data to work is better.

Conversations on the show floor indicated that much of the industry is upping their data game. In these discussions and in sessions I heard how technologies, such as remote sensing, LiDAR, and other aerial recording, are being used to collect more data at a larger scale. Importantly, I saw that improvements in technology now provide utilities with a clear understanding of the ground truth conditions throughout their service area, with an accuracy of up to 90%.

But the data itself is not enough, is it?

It was good to hear of ways the latest technologies can improve vegetation management by taking data further. With a data-agnostic approach, analytics and AI, intelligent vegetation management software can ingest and analyze data. Using data from boots-on-the-ground reporting, Excel spreadsheets, and CRM software to satellite imagery, and across such file types as CSV, GenSON, JSON, and BBD, new technologies supply insights that lead to action.

My solid takeaway here was that it is connection to insights and action that enables utilities to drive work plans with more precision, improving the time to actionable results.

Take action

  • Question what other efficiencies can be gained using the latest technology.
  • Evaluate where data insights can improve workflow and results.
Insurance costs are rising, but there are new ways to avoid higher premiums.

The last thing utilities with stagnant or diminishing budgets need is higher insurance premiums. However, with more frequent and more destructive storms and wildfires, underwriters are poised to ask for more. The question of this session — and my question — was: What can be done to keep insurance costs down?

One utility reported that accreditation from the Right-of-Way Stewardship Council helped them gain more favorable premium rates, noting that underwriters prefer a data-driven approach to decision-making. They reported that presenting proof of accreditation and record of risk reduction helps to secure more favorable rates.

Take action

  • Quantify total risk reduction for underwriters, showing what has been removed or mitigated, and supply imagery, reports, and charts.
  • Build data into a business case. Compare detections year over year.
Thanks to VM professionals, utilities are also making the case for sustainability.

Net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Based on mentions by presenters I saw in various sessions, this goal is picking up steam.

The traditionally carbon heavy utility industry is making the shift to renewables. In fact, several presenters commented on how vegetation managers have been at the forefront, driving sustainable progress, which is considered in ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) reporting.

Some utilities are now considering ways to put more focus on Natural Capital and reduction of carbon emissions. Tangible sustainability efforts include planting trees, converting historically mowed ROWs to pollinator habitats, and quantifying carbon credits from utility owned land to meet carbon goals by 2050.

Progress is slowed by the time, effort, and costs associated with quantifying and verifying sustainability efforts with a third party.

Considering those challenges, I was encouraged to hear of two simple steps that champion sustainability: Simply stopping workers from “idling” trucks will reduce the carbon footprint by reducing emissions, and insight-informed work plans can do the same by reducing mobilization drive time.

Take action

  • Follow the simple steps mentioned above!
  • Evaluate and implement sustainable initiatives that will contribute to the businesses ESG goals.
  • Plant now. Establish tree populations that will yield larger gains and further carbon reduction by 2050. Ensure species are noninvasive, appropriate for the site location, and ensure a M&E plan is implemented after planting.
Working with tribal governments is an evolving process.

I was interested to learn how working with tribal governments can be different than working with general local, county, state, or even federal governments. And I learned that, chances are, with 574 American Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities recognized by the U.S. government, most utilities will be working with tribal governments.

According to M.K. Youngblood of ACRT Pacific, fostering relationships and working collectively with tribal governments will allow utilities better access to tribal lands to improve access to electricity, ensure reliability, and perform routine maintenance. He said that communication and knowledge are critical while working with tribal governments.

Besides “Googling” for information on local tribal lands, history, and customs, he encouraged utilities to get information from USDA Tribal Outreach, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, U.S. Department of the Interior, and U.S. Dept of Agriculture. And he noted that an understanding of both the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and the Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance (TERO) is important to avoid unforeseen violations.

He also encouraged utilities to be PROACTIVE in the following manner:

  • P – provide and encourage employment opportunities for American Indians and Alaska Natives
  • R – research the tribe and reservation
  • O – offer opportunity for future projects with the tribe
  • A – advocate for tribal collaboration
  • C – consult early and often
  • T – be truthful in words and actions
  • I – incorporate TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge)
  • V – visit and support tribal owned business
  • E – engagement at all levels

Take action

  • Work with a tribal liaison.
  • Consider the TEK approach in VM practices.

I found Trees and Utilities 2023 to be a positive, energetic collaboration of utility-related professionals. The efforts to share best practices and solutions reflected what that attendee I mentioned earlier observed: We’re an industry that is “driven to do the right thing” for our companies, our people, and our planet.

AiDash was a proud sponsor of Trees and Utilities 2023, and on behalf of AiDash, I want to thank the Utility Arborist Association and the Arbor Day Foundation for hosting the event. We look forward to seeing everyone there next year!

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