How to work proactively with your regulators as an electric utility


With regulations coming at utilities at both the federal and state levels, steps to keep relationships with regulatory agencies moving smoothly are vital. 

Consider FAC-003-04 standards for transmission vegetation management, which require minimization of encroachments from vegetation located adjacent to the utility rights of way. Enforced by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, it is just one of many federal-level regulations enacted by countries around the globe.  

Add to that burden regulations from state and often local agencies. Most support similar missions — to ensure that efficient and reliable energy is delivered to consumers safely, securely, and cost effectively — but specifics will differ from state to state, agency to agency.  

Beyond their standard oversight, requiring compliance with guidelines and protocols, regulators try not to pierce the veil of managing the day-to-day business. 

Vegetation management

Compliance is necessary to stay in good standing with regulators and avoid hefty fines for violation. Being on good terms also makes it easier to bring new issues and approaches like satellite-powered vegetation management to regulators for positive resolution.  

Let’s look at 5 ways to work proactively with your regulators for your vegetation management initiatives. 

Ask for what you need within annual reporting   

Do you have work you want to move forward with and need to ask regulators for funding — approval on new rates? Are you looking to implement a satellite and AI solution? A best practice is to work that proposal and request for funding into your annual reporting.  

Yearly reporting and processes to review work and budget requests within such reviews are typically already established. So, getting your new plans and requests in front of regulators with your yearly report saves the struggle and protracted processes of special hearings, which can take months or even years to complete. 

And, while you may need to go out and do the time-sensitive work you are proposing before the regulatory approval is in place, getting your ask before the regulators within the annual reporting means you’ll have your answer sooner rather than later. 

Create a risk profile 

Vegetation risk profile

 If you’ve already put a satellite and AI solution in play, you are reaping a vast amount of valuable data that can inform operations and maintenance. This is also information that can convince regulators to approve current and future funding for this solution. 

Remote sensing provides real data, essentially your proof of concept, to bring to regulators to show that you’re actively working on a plan: This is what we’ve been using, this is how it works, and these are our results. It can even help to decrease your liability should a disaster occur.   

Think of remote sensing results almost like a paper trail.  

Run AI analysis to spot areas of concern or high risk. The system flags these, and it recommends ways to provide the best results in your budget. Then you can do a post-work audit after the fact using satellite imagery to ensure the right work was done in the right area.   

Taking that data-driven report to your regulator is a massive asset in your corner and may even help you make the case for more funding. For example, show regulators: This is what we’ve been able to do, but if we had more money to address trees outside of rights of way we can better sustain and improve our reliability.   

Stack your deck with concerns most regulators relate to — and that means customers 

Satellite-based vegetation management is an approach with myriad benefits for utilities. But what’s in it for the customers? That’s what the regulators will want to know.  

 It’s an understandable stance, since the customer typically assumes the cost for large projects on both the transmission and distribution sides in the rates they pay for service. There must be a very strong customer connection: Every investment must be for the benefit of customers either by improving service reliability or accessibility.  

Beyond the new projects, keep in mind that regulators are very sensitive to customer issues and complaints. If you’ve had challenges such as outages or other service issues, be sure to not only identify them but also show what you have done to fix the problems.  

As you advocate for your plans, bring SAIDI and SAIFI into the mix. If your numbers are great, you are reinforcing your positive image with your regulator. If they are lackluster, use them to your advantage. Explain: Here’s where we see issues and here are the adjustments and technology changes, we believe can address these challenges.  

Bring contractors and providers into the conversation 

Contractors and technology providers can be assets or allies to a utility as it presents plans to a regulatory board.  

Contractors have their own pain points in trying to deliver what the utility needs as far as cycle trimming, pole replacement, or hazard tree identification, for example. Include this contractor story in communications with regulators. What does the contractor need to improve their work? In the case of satellite-powered vegetation management, how will contractor staff work with this technology? What will they be doing to support it?  

Vegetation management contractors

Technology providers, too, can reinforce the need for your proposed plan, but take care to avoid marketing spiel. Focus instead on how the solution, such as satellites and AI, works. Describe how it has worked in the past with use cases and success stories from other customers.  

Where appropriate, offer to bring contractors or providers before regulators at their request. Just be sure to preapprove their presentations. Then, let them tell the story for you. 

Keep turnover in mind  

Annual reporting is your opportunity to educate regulators about your utility, its reach, history, current performance, and plans.  

And this complete description of who you are and what you are doing bears repeating. Every year. 

With responsibilities that often have them working on overload, individual members of the regulatory body may not recall a utility’s specifics year over year.  

Plus, turnover is a constant. 

Some regulators are directly elected and may be out at the next election. Others are appointed, but, again, if there is a party or political change, new regulators may be joining the agency. A change in governor, for example, may very well clean house for the related public service commission.

In addition, serious events may prompt resignations: For example, five members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) board, which oversees the Texas electric grid, resigned after a 2021 winter storm left more than 4.5 million customers without power.  

As new members onboard at regulatory agencies some may not have a deep background in utility operations, and they certainly will not be up to speed on your utility.   

A patient, educational mindset is a must for building and keeping a positive relationship with your regulators. 

In addition to the above proactive approaches to regulators, consider presenting a solution like AiDash Intelligent Vegetation Management System, which delivers ROI in the first year. Relying on current, accurate data from this satellite and AI solution, utilities quickly realize that they don’t need to trim and pay for everything that they previously planned for. 

Looking for a deep dive on satellite-powered vegetation management? Get your copy of our free book today.