5 reasons why electric utilities are struggling to optimize vegetation management
For electric utilities the job is clear: provide safe, reliable power to customers.
But there are more than a few roadblocks to getting that done effectively.
Climate change for one. Droughts and other weather-related issues have risen drastically, stressing tree health and increasing the number of danger and hazard trees to contend with.
Budget constraints are another. They haven’t exactly been cut, but inflation has risen to almost 9%, contractor rates have increased 50% over the last 5 years, and budgets have stayed flat.
Throw in increased regulatory pressure and the rise of people working from home, and the ability to power flowing reliably has never been more difficult.
Electric utilities have always worked hard to avoid vegetation related outages, certainly since FAC-003, but we’re getting to a point where something has to change, or reliability will start slipping to dangerously low levels.
What is vegetation management and why is it important?
Vegetation management 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
Electric utilities have been managing vegetation along power lines and ROWs for several decades now.
But that might be one of the major reasons why vegetation management is losing its effectiveness. Aside from the environmental challenges we’ve already mentioned there are a lot of problems in current operation that have cost utilities millions of dollars.
- 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, and asset maintenance.
- Fixed annual cycles - Most electric utilities find themselves relying on traditional fixed trim cycles which usually vary between 4 and 8 years. These fixed cycles lead to a lot of inefficiencies, both with time and O&M budget. Vegetation grows at different rates. There could be droughts, storms, construction or other factors that speed up, or slow vegetation. Because of this, crews will often spend time working a circuit that doesn’t need it yet, when another section could be growing into power lines.
- 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 electric utilities perform manual vegetation management inspections, and this makes it extremely difficult to patrol and carefully monitor the growth of vegetation along thousands of miles. Not only does this bring poor visibility of vegetation growth and asset health, but it also means that they have very little visibility on the hazards and risks. This leads to reactive maintenance which means you’ll never get ahead of potential disruptions.
- Laggard tech usage - laggard tech usage coupled with manual processes is yet another major challenge faced by electric 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 utility industry could take a major step forward in O&M. The use of remote sensing technology, predictive analytics and Artificial Intelligence is changing vegetation management for the better. These technologies can help utilities predict the growth of vegetation in advance and offer full visibility of assets from space. And with over 60 utilities now working with us, we’re seeing real results from this innovation.
- Rising costs - 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 challenges is the first step towards finding solutions to more efficient vegetation management. While traditional vegetation management has not been effective enough, utilities are facing increased costs, dissatisfied customers and growing regulatory pressures.
To combat all of the above-mentioned problems, electric 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.
Learn 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.