The biggest blackout in North American history unfolded more than 14 years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The cause? An overgrown tree. On Aug. 14, 2003, low-hanging foliage came into contact with power lines in northeastern Ohio, causing a local shutdown that should have tripped an alarm at the headquarters of FirstEnergy, the utility managing the failed electrical delivery fixtures. This ideal emergency scenario did not materialize, however. Instead, the staff at the power provider never received notification of the failure, sitting unaware as other nearby lines sagged and shutdown. These ancillary failures triggered an intra-continental domino effect, ultimately causing a blackout that stretched across eight northeastern U.S. states and areas of southeastern Canada. The event left an estimated 50 million U.S. and Canadian residents without power.

Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 following the great North American blackout, the Scientific American reported. This piece of legislation created legally enforceable reliability standards and granted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the power to maintain these regulations via the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation. In the years since, the organization has published more than 50 standards, including rule No. 785, which stipulates that utilities must trim vegetation growing adjacent to power lines and leave considerable clearance. For example, lines that extend 152.4 meters above sea level and are connected to systems with maximum voltages of 550 kilowatts must be at least 1.57 meters removed from surrounding brush, according to FERC. This standard and others have forced U.S. utilities to focus on vegetation management practices and faithfully address the foliage surrounding the estimated 5.5 million miles of line they manage, Scientific American reported.

With winter on its way, electrical companies should consider further bolstering their vegetation management activities. Communities in Midwest and Northwest are expected to experience higher than normal winter precipitation levels, according to analysts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Trees may be prone to collapse in these conditions, increasing the risk of vegetation-related power outages. Apart from ratcheting up hiring practices to bring in the manpower needed to conduct massive vegetation management operations, how can utilities really achieve this goal? Here are some actionable strategies for taking these essential maintenance activities to another level:

Snow-covered trees can cause major damage to power lines.Snow-covered trees can cause major damage to power lines.

Develop training programs
In the FERC report published soon after the 2003 blackout, analysts for the group offered numerous recommendations for improving vegetation management practices. Training was one of the most discussed pieces of advice in the report. The authors advised power providers to implement internal instructional programs aimed at equipping linemen with the knowledge they need to safely monitor and address natural features near critical service delivery structures. In addition to training employees on vegetation management processes, utilities should offer public-facing programs to cultivate awareness among land owners and other local stakeholders who encounter foliage adjacent to power lines, breakers and other key features. 

Together, these initiatives can give all parties included in the vegetation management equation the insight required to mitigate the additional risks that arise during the colder months when heavy winter precipitation falls and trees inevitably droop toward power lines.

Implement cutting-edge technology
For the longest time, utility companies have relied on manual administrative and field processes, including workflows related to vegetation management. These traditional systems might involve maintaining paper-based foliage evaluation records. While somewhat effective, these documents often lead to confusion, breakdowns in vegetation management practices and outages. With this in mind, some utilities are implementing mobile applications that streamline these activities, according to Esri. Linemen equipped with these tools can easily track and address problematic vegetation – no dated paper records involved.

As temperatures drop, electrical companies must work to take care of trees and other foliage capable of interrupting service delivery, should they become covered in ice or snow. Those looking to bolster their vegetation management processes by adopting mobile applications should connect with DataVoice International Today. We offer a weather-tested mobile solution capable of supporting proactive vegetation management activities and preventing shutdowns, big and small. Contact us today to learn more. 

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