Vegetation management (VM) is often the single largest line item for a utility maintenance budget. There are roughly 5.7 million miles of transmission and distribution cables crisscrossing the country.
Protecting this critical infrastructure from natural obstructions is no small feat, and despite best efforts - outages are on the rise.
With the recent weather outage events in Texas and an administration focused on energy transformation - 2021 will be a critical year for reexamining vegetation management tools, practices, and technologies.
Regulation is growing stricter and funding vegetation management efforts may seem daunting. However, researchers at Accenture have outlined three ways digital transformation can reduce VM operating costs:
- Optimizing allocation of preventative spending
- Enabling advanced analytics for work planning
- Automating quality assurance
The Utility Arborist Association reached similar conclusions.
With utilities seeking solutions that will maximize the budget, we have compiled a list of technology and tools that can increase operational efficiency and improve cycle times for vegetation management programs.
Optimize the vegetation management lifecycle with remote inspections and predictive modeling
The VM lifecycle has changed little in recent decades.
Most programs follow a traditional cycle of planning, scoping, treatment, and auditing. This cycle relies on legacy tools: paper maps, general growth estimates, and low-resolution photographs.
Today, these tools can be optimized though high resolution aerial imagery, pinpoint GPS coordinates, and 3D modeling. The result is automated planning, intelligent scheduling, and budgets that maximize field crew resources through unmanned inspections.
But what does this new process look like?
It begins with uploading historical data into an artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) database. Then, satellite imagery and LiDAR point clouds (obtained from drones and helicopter sweeps) can be used to keep the data current.
Immediate access to near real-time data allows teams to analyze against historical documentation in order to create 3D growth models and predictive maintenance scheduling.
According to Accenture, providers using advanced Tree Trimming Models (TTM) were able to reduce their five-year cycle spend by 50% and improve reliability by 10%. For short-term and discrete inspections, drones can reduce times between 55% and 99%.
Integrate intelligent weather sensors and metering
Climate change is intensifying and the number of extreme weather events that hit the U.S. each year is increasing. In fact, the five-year outage average has doubled every five years since 2000.
92% of storm outages are caused by vegetation being knocked into power lines.
While severe weather is the new normal, VM teams have more access than ever before to high accuracy data and automated sensors - tools which can help providers anticipate outages and reduce response times.
Utility providers have relied on historical weather patterns to anticipate seasonal maintenance needs, but those models are out-dated and often fail to predict extreme and/or unseasonable weather events.
Real-time analytics and predictive prevention are paramount for reducing risk.
Providers that adjust based on past major weather events have experienced positive results. By identifying areas most likely to experience an outage, smart metering systems can notify consumers and deploy service teams to affected areas almost instantly.
Deploy smart devices and geospatial workflows
Remote inspections will never fully replace field crews. However, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can optimize routine inspections by ensuring that field teams are dispatched to high priority areas first.
After all, field crews are the heart of VM. These frontline workers must physically travel to problem areas to trim, prune, and remove encroaching vegetation, as well as repair damaged assets and equipment.
While utility providers have expanded their IT ecosystems to improve VM programs in the office, many field crews are still limited by inaccurate data, latency, and paperwork.
Equipping field technicians with smart devices can increase productivity by 27% and reduce repeat site visits by 60%.
This means reduced costs and a better return on investment (ROI), as well as greater transparency for field teams and stakeholders.
Platforms that couple geospatial workflows with asset management bring the office into the field: providing crews with access to data history, interactive map visualizations, and the ability to upload and attach media to completed work.
Streamline custom reporting and regulation compliance
Vegetation management costs utilities between $6-8 billion annually. In addition to significant operational expenses, providers face intense regulatory pressure including strict federal guidelines and NERC fines upwards of $1 million per citation.
Siloed information is a costly business, so utilities must have the agility and capability to provide data and reports on short notice.
Currently, many VM operations rely on paper, spreadsheets, and harddrives to record and store information.
From there, field crews have to transfer data multiple times before it finally populates a system of record. Not only is this time consuming, but each transfer exposes data to security and integrity issues.
Equipping field teams with cloud-connected smart devices ensures seamless capture and sharing of information - streamlining compliance efforts from start to finish.
Mobile platforms can turn the field into the office, ensuring that all necessary data - including time and geo stamps, images, and video - are always accessible with just a few clicks.
Providers that adopt custom reporting solutions can then auto populate regulatory forms to reduce days of paperwork down to a few minutes.
No single technology or platform can address every requirement of an effective vegetation management program.
These operations are complex, involving mobile crews and physical labor, dispatching and field service software, asset management, and detailed reporting. To see significant results, a holistic approach is necessary.
The solutions outlined above are a great start for reimagining legacy cycles through digital tools. In the end, whatever solutions you adopt should enable your field crews to do their best works in the areas that need it most.
Learn more about Unearth's map-based digital tools for vegetation management