Randolph EMC’s approach to vegetation risk management


When you are a rural electric co-op serving portions of 5 heavily forested counties in central North Carolina, vegetation management is going to be a prime concern.

“I like to joke sometimes that I feel like we’re a right-of-way management company that also builds power lines occasionally,” said Jacob Barlow, senior project engineer, Randolph Electric Membership Corporation (Randolph EMC).

That significant amount of time and effort trimming trees away from mostly distribution line miles was the topic when Barlow joined former Entergy VP of Distribution Services and Host Gary Huntly for a recent episode of State of Vegetation Management.

To hear their discussion, watch the recorded live event now or read on for 3 key takeaways.

Takeaway 1: Circuit or segmented trims? Where do benefits outweigh difficulties?

The heaviest lift in Randolph Electric’s budget is its circuit-based cycle trim schedule, which averages 7 years, according to Randolph EMC Senior Project Engineer Jacob Barlow. Resource and funds availability as well and actual tree condition occasionally shift the cycles to 6 or 8 years, but the “spend” remains heavy.

No stranger to budget concerns, the electricity co-op constantly looks for ways to improve efficiencies and save money in their right-of-way management, so they considered the possibility of segmented trims. Instead of addressing vegetation along the full length of the circuit per a general area schedule, a segmented trim divides the circuit into smaller, more localized sections that are prioritized by risk, considering the vegetation’s growth and proximity to overhead lines.

Randolph EMC reviewed possible benefits of handling the areas of heightened risk first and extending time between trims for areas in good standing. But they also noted the challenges:

  • Planning and notifying members in advance of varying segment trim dates.
  • Balancing costs, as average expenses will likely rise when hitting the most challenging parts of the circuit.
  • Ensuring that CDL drivers are available to move heavy equipment from location to location rather than just down a right of way.
  • Allowing enough flexibility to keep work constant. For example, if a neighborhood is wet from rain, trimming may need to be skipped for the day, while areas higher in the circuit may be dry and allow work. But if a segment assignment gets rained on, it can be logistically difficult and expensive to move equipment to a dry segment.

The challenges prompted Randolph EMC to relook at its circuit trim cycle and make improvements rather than taking the segmented approach.

Takeaway 2: How we you beat proximity bias? With technology and a holistic approach.

It’s the vegetation around rights of way that utility staff see on a daily basis that stays top of mind. It typically gets the most attention, but this may be to the detriment of other rights of way.

Barlow explained, “If I live on the system and when I drive home, I’m passing all our poles and wires on the way home and on a certain circuit. So, I look at that right of way every single day, and I know we need to trim this.”

But it’s not so easy to keep up with lines that are out of direct sight. To ensure that every line mile is seen a holistic approach that includes technology is needed.

Organizations can save costs and gather more quality data regarding all overhead lines by:

  • Embracing advanced technology alternatives: drone inspections, lidar, and satellite technology.
  • Realizing efficient and thorough inspection reporting, which decreases the need for manual observation.
  • Redirecting budget and resources from traditional on-site inspections to these more advanced technologies.

Implementing a technology-based approach not only provides a holistic view but also addresses logistical challenges, such as covering areas that may be difficult to access by vehicle or even on foot.

Takeaway 3: Budget challenges? Talk plans first, costs second.

“If you really looked at your budget — if you’re paying a full-time person to ride out and inspect all the lines — could that money be potentially better spent on doing some kind of different inspection type?” asked Barlow.

And the next questions are:

  1. Is budget available to bring those technologies on board?
  2. How can the new technologies be presented to the board?
  3. How can funding be assured for funding for trim cycles that address risk?

“Don’t let the budget determine the tree trimming. Let the condition of the trees determine the budget,” Barlow advised.

The board needs to see what it will take to cut trees, mow rights of way, apply herbicides, enable hazard tree detection, and so forth.

“You present the budget that it takes and let them walk it back if they need to from a rate perspective or a cashflow perspective, or whatever the drivers are,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about our members. We want to keep their lights on as much as possible.”

Randolph EMC’s use of satellite powered vegetation management technologies from AiDash allowed reassessment of their trim cycles. With enhanced information, the company was able to determine that being more aggressive with their inherited trim cycle would improve right of way management, without taking on the extra challenges of a segmented approach. Further, difficult terrain was assessed via satellite remote sensing technology, which helped the company avoid proximity bias and worker safety issues from manual monitoring. Plus, the technology positions the company to achieve rapid ROI — typically within one year.

To learn more about Randolph EMC’s approach to vegetation risk management, watch the recorded live event  here.

Or get more information about AiDash’s Intelligent Vegetation Management System here.