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6 Vegetation Management Trends We Saw at Trees & Utilities 2021

The AiDash team recently took a trip out to Minneapolis for the Utility Arborist Association’s (UAA) Trees and Utilities 2021 conference. During the three days of the conference, we met arborists, vegetation managers, and utility industry professionals who are experts in the field of vegetation management.


Since one aim of the conference was knowledge sharing, we wanted to share some of what we learned while we were there.


6 vegetation management trends you should consider looking into


The Trees and Utilities conference is “the chief learning and engagement event in the world for utility vegetation managers and associated urban forestry professionals.” So it’s safe to say that the people there know what they’re talking about when it comes to...well...trees and utilities. Check out a summary of what some of the experts had to say below.


1. Diverse hiring and employment is important to the VM industry


The 2021 conference opened up with a breakfast and workshop for women in vegetation management to help women in the industry prepare for success. 


According to research from the Davey Resource Group, women occupy only 22% of positions in the utility vegetation management industry. Utilities employ one of the highest concentrations of tree trimmers and pruners. So in focusing on hiring, training, and promoting diverse candidates, UVM has a chance to lead the way and set an example for arborists and vegetation managers employed in other industries.


The business case for diverse hiring has been made many times, but it’s worth repeating here. The UVM industry, just like any other industry, can benefit from the increased innovation — and increased revenue — that comes from casting a wider net to employ people from various backgrounds and experiences.


2. Satellites are hot, and LiDAR is lukewarm


I’ll admit right away that I’m writing from a biased perspective. AiDash Intelligent Vegetation Management System (IVMS) is a satellite- and AI-powered VM solution. But I have numbers to back up my statement that satellites are trending while LiDAR is on its way out.

 

AiDash and National Grid speaking at Trees & Utilities conference 2021

AiDash presented to a full house with our customer, National Grid, at Trees and Utilities 2021


Out of the 27 talks and presentations delivered at Trees and Utilities, three (11%) of those talks were on the use of satellite analytics to optimize VM activities. There were no talks (0%) that focused on LiDAR.


LiDAR is still a valid vegetation management tool. However, satellites’ lower comparative cost, fewer regulatory requirements, and larger coverage areas make satellite imagery a compelling choice over LiDAR.


3. Integrated vegetation management (IVM) should be more than a buzzword


Integrated vegetation management was also a hot topic at this year’s Trees and Utilities conference. You can think of IVM as a subside of utility vegetation management (UVM), which focuses on the general removal of vegetation from areas where critical electrical power infrastructures are located.


Instead of looking at encroaching vegetation and simply deciding to remove it, integrated vegetation management centers on creating and maintaining sustainable, compatible plant communities in utility right-of-ways (ROW). So favoring low-growing native plant species compatible with an area of land maintained by a utility over invasive or non-native plant species is a priority for IVM practitioners. That means being selective about which plants you remove from an area and how you remove them.


However, it’s becoming clear that while some utilities say they’re doing IVM, their VM practices say otherwise. In a CNUC survey, manager of research and development, Philip Chen — who also spoke at the conference — says that 77% respondents said IVM was important to their UVM programs. However, only 28% of those respondents stated that biological control — a critical component of IVM best practices — was important or very important for their programs.


With growing environmental and land use regulations, those in the utility industry will have to become better land stewards. But saying you’ve adopted progressive VM techniques isn’t enough. You’ll have to start proving it with increased knowledge and care of the land your infrastructure occupies.


4. Arborists and contractors need more and different training


A growing focus on the VM techniques that IVM calls for will require more training for field crews. Selective spraying, for example, means that contractors will have to be able to properly identify different species to eliminate only invasive plants. A deeper understanding of local environments, such as pollinator habitats or the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies, might also be required to meet conservationists’ goals in certain areas.

 

Field workers spraying herbicide on a field


Organizations have taken different approaches to make sure their field crews are ready to meet these new challenges. One speaker mentioned that their company had incentivized contractors to complete more intensive plant identification training by promising them a pay bump after passing an identification test. But specifying training expectations to align with your VM program — and then making that training accessible — is a good first step to prepare field crews for new VM techniques.


5. Utilities should start tracking their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics


ESG metrics help companies “report non-financial disclosures,” according to the Journal of Accountancy. Here’s a simple breakdown:

 

  • Environmental metrics relate to sustainability. For a utility, carbon emissions, energy efficiency, and waste are all fair metrics to report on. But a utility could also report on and document their IVM efforts, such as a focus on biodiversity or rehabilitating ROWs with native plant species.
  • Social metrics are related to employee health and wellness, as well as safe and fair labor practices. Lineman and field crew safety would be big numbers for utilities to focus on here.
  • And finally, governance metrics refer to how ethically and equitably you’re running your business. Accounting transparency, diverse board composition, and a lack of corruption litigation are all positive marks for governance metrics.


Stricter environmental regulations and increasing public concern over climate change mean utilities of all sizes can do a better job of ESG reporting to document their efforts to operate in an environmentally conscious way.


However, the challenge for utilities is figuring out how to measure these metrics in the first place. If one of the goals of your IVM program is to increase biodiversity in your ROWs, for example, what is your baseline metric for biodiversity? Are you trying to increase your biodiversity by a certain percentage? How long should it take you to get there? How and when will you check for increases in ROW biodiversity?


Establishing, tracking, and then reporting on ESG metrics will help your utility meet sustainability goals, emphasize the importance of non-financial metrics to the C suite, and build an environmentally-conscious public image.


6. Utilities have a PR problem


And speaking of public image, let’s talk about utilities and their PR problem.


It’s no secret that utilities aren’t often seen as “the good guys” in the news. It’s difficult — and sometimes impossible — to put a positive spin on industry-wide issues like wildfire-related manslaughter charges, shady uses of COVID tax credits, and climate change denial.


But those aren’t the PR problems I’m talking about.

 
A sentiment I heard echoed time and again during the conference — mostly in the halls between presentations — went something like this: “We’re already doing a lot of green, sustainable activities. But it’s hard to tell people about it.”


But especially when it comes to progressive or environmentally-conscious vegetation management efforts, people need to hear about what you’re doing. The great thing is that phone cameras and social media make it pretty easy to document and broadcast your VM activities. To quote another conference-goer: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it matter? Yes, if someone is promoting it.”


A simple picture of your field crew working with a brief description of what you’re doing and why can go a long way to establish community connections or improve your utility’s public image. Letting the wider public know you’re taking action to be amazing land stewards can pave the way for community partnerships with conservation or environmental groups (which could also pave the way for a bigger budget for green VM activities).


Of course greenwashing — saying you’re environmentally friendly without the actions to back it up — is discouraged. But when you’re out in the field doing the right thing for your utility, your community, and the environment, a picture — and maybe a tweet or two — can go a long way.


What growing VM trends have you noticed?


We know we only picked up on a handful of vegetation management trends at this year’s Trees and Utilities conference. Are there any VM trends worth mentioning that I didn’t point out in this post?


If so, let’s start practicing that social media literacy. Write a tweet and tag @aidashinc with your thoughts. Or go old school and send me an email to highlight a VM trend we should be talking about.