2023 state of North American utilities: Best practices and what’s next


2022 may have been the most challenging year for utilities in recent memory.

Inflationary pressures, regulatory pressures, climate change, sustainability pledges, liability concerns — you have a lot of issues to contend with.

So how can you balance all of that while keeping people safe and the power on? That’s exactly what utility experts Jordan Jozak, Robert Warwick, and Bryan Sonnier sit down to discuss.

Top Four Takeaways Takeaway

1. The pressure is rising for utilities

Inflation has hit 8.6%. Contractor rates have risen 50%+ over the last 5 years. The effects of climate change and increased frequency of storms are being felt across North American utilities.

Costs are up, budgets are flat, and the expectations from both regulators and customers for safe, reliable, clean power are only increasing.

And with WFH (work from home) becoming the norm, the old ways of calculated demand and calculated load aren’t cutting it.

Instead of 5 office buildings downtown we have 5,000 home offices spread across the state.

Utility specialist Bryan Sonnier said, “Customers are now seeing these momentary outages that they didn’t before, and these are getting escalated to your local ops and area/city managers. Utilities have more pressure than ever before to manage vegetation in the most effective way possible.”

Using technology to segment your network based on different risk factors is the most efficient way to keep reliability high despite limited resources.

2. Proactively work with your regulators

“One tree could cause one fire that could cause a bankruptcy.” – Robert Warwick, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist; former Senior Vegetation Program Manager, PG&E

Liability is always a top concern for any utility. But what if you just can’t get the insurance you need?

A completely healthy pole could snap during a major storm and fall on someone’s house or even cause a spark that kicks off a wildfire. And even though the equipment was properly inspected, you could still be held liable.

And with the pressures we talked about earlier, the budget doesn’t support inspecting everywhere all the time. So how do you prioritize work with this question in the back of your mind: “What if this is the next storm outage or wildfire?”

Using all the data at your fingertips to create a plan that you can take to your regulators with confidence is key.

Determine your risk criteria and start to map out your network based on these. After that, develop a work plan to address areas based on that risk. Once that’s done, proactively take it to your regulators.

They’ll see you prioritizing based on critical risk factors and know that you’re actively working to improve safety for everyone.

3. Take advantage of your capital budget

Getting as much done as possible with as little O&M as possible shouldn’t sound strange to anyone.

And an easy way to help with that is taking advantage of capital work.

The rub is that you have to know when you have an opportunity for it, and that isn’t always easy.

With the right data (satellites and AI) you can get a view of your network to know when and where you have opportunities for capital work.

Let’s say you have thousands of traditional fuses getting replaced by reclosers.

You can look at all of them quickly and see: This fuse is in the middle of a bunch of trees. Let’s move it up line 3 spans, still protecting customers but saving potential outages because of the tree density.

Plus, you can squeeze in tree trimming on the capital budget during this process (even if it’s only a few hundred spans) that doesn’t have to hit your O&M.

4. Proactive sustainability is key

It seems like every company is making a green commitment these days, and utilities are no different.

But how do you take it from an empty sustainability report on your investors page to something that makes a real impact — something you can prove?

With the help of satellite powered climate tech, Robert Warwick has a few ideas. He recommends looking at all of your assets holistically.

How many miles are your crews driving each year, and how much C02 are they putting out?

Where is equipment being replaced before the update is necessary?
Are you trimming completely healthy trees that aren’t a risk yet when other hazard trees are down the road?

With 700,000+ miles of transmission corridors in the U.S. alone, that leaves upwards of 4,000 square miles of land that utilities could be using in a carbon offset program. Of course, knowing how is another matter, but satellites and AI can help with that, too.

The bottom line is that you need to have a way to know your baseline, find opportunities for improvement, and then actually prove your actions and report on it.

Want to see how satellites and AI can transform your utility? Talk to a specialist today!