Most utilities devote serious time and resources to maintaining the foliage that grows near essential service delivery infrastructure.

Those outside the industry rarely associate utility companies with vegetation management activities. In reality, most devote serious time and resources to maintaining the foliage that grows near essential service delivery infrastructure. Why?

Large foliage such as trees can easily damage electrical lines and other key structures. In fact, these sturdy shrubs are the top cause of a large majority of outage events, according to research from the Federal Energy Regulation Commission. Extreme weather often uproots tall trees, sending them crashing down on nearby lines. Additionally, untrimmed shrubs that encroach on electrical equipment can similarly paralyze service. This was the case in 2003, when overgrown brush contributed to a massive blackout during which about 50 million people in the United States and Canada lost power, according to CBS News. Major metropolitan areas like Detroit, New York City and Ontario fell into darkness, leaving residents without many public services.

Two years after the 2003 outage – the largest in America's history – President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Policy Act, which called for the creation of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, according to Congressional records. This nonprofit was tasked with creating and enforcing federal vegetation management regulations. 

Today, NERC does just that via the Electric Reliability Standard. This regulatory document dictates that utilities regularly prune trees and plants near power lines and other important electrical fixtures. Additionally, they are required to develop and maintain vegetation management plans that not only meet NERC requirements but also conform to applicable local, state and federal laws. Noncompliance can result in major financial penalties. For instance in May of last year, NERC issued a violation to one Florida utility that carried financial penalties totaling $100,000. The organization had failed to properly clear brush from a single line.

Downed trees and overgrown brush can harm electrical infrastructure.Downed trees and overgrown brush can harm electrical infrastructure.

An old school approach
Utilities in the U.S. understand the importance of proper vegetation management and typically do their best to comply with NERC regulations and provide stable services to their customers. Even so, many use decidedly out-of-date vegetation management methods. In most cases, linemen go out into the field and mark potential vegetation issues on paper maps. For some, this is where the process ends. Workers simply reference these resources when deployed to trim overhanging trees or encroaching brush. Others use these maps in combination with computerized databases, ESRI discovered. This normally involves inputting field notes and notated schematics into internal systems dispatchers and other headquarters staff can access during outage events.

Of course, both of these methodologies have serious flaws. Relying on paper maps won't do these days, as utilities must maintain highly organized internal workflows to meet the demands of modern customers used to dealing with efficient and responsive service providers. While input​ting manually mapped vegetation information into an easy-to-access database may improve things, it still leaves considerable room for error. Simply put, there's really no way to ensure that logged data is accurate, as things are often lost in translation when office personnel pore over hastily scrawled field notes and quickly colored maps.

Innovations on the horizon
For the most part, utilities recognize the risks involved with the above methods and are slowly but surely adopting more modern vegetation management systems. Some are using open-source technology such as Google Maps to digitize the process and create accurate vegetation logs that are easy to access and update. Others have collaborated with industry-specific software companies to create custom mobile and desktop applications that integrate with existing systems.

"Many utilities use decidedly out-of-date vegetation management methods."

While these developments represent a significant improvement over manual mapping methods, they aren't ideal. Developing and implementing custom vegetation management tools takes time, and in most cases costs a considerable amount of money. For many utilities, allocating significant resources for bespoke software isn't an option. That said, there are other solutions on the market that make it easier and less expensive to adopt an effective vegetation management strategy built on the latest technology.

Some technology companies package vegetation management solutions with associated outage management systems, cutting out the need for costly customizations. With one simple installation, utilities of all sizes can not only adopt the cutting-edge tools they need to keep lines clear and avoid fines, but also gain the ability to proactively address growth and drastically reduce the likelihood of dealing with vegetation-related outage situations.

Where can you get such an impactful, all-in-one platform? DataVoice International. Our widely-used OMS solution seamlessly integrates with the industry-leading vegetation management features included in our crew mobile application. Through this portal, linemen can use their smartphone cameras to document overgrown vegetation that could harm nearby electrical infrastructure. Photographs and associated field notes are geotagged and automatically stored in utility servers, so no data entry is required.

Are you ready to modernize your vegetation management strategy? Call (972) 390-8808 or email to learn more or request a cost-free demonstration.

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