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3 ways technology can revolutionize utility vegetation management

Kristen Gray photo

Kristen Gray

In combination with weather, vegetation is one of the most common causes of power outages - or even wildfires - that could be termed as an electrical utility’s fault. That makes vegetation management one of the most critical, unseen functions in the electrical utility economy. Unfortunately, many utilities still use outdated processes that are costly on time and money. However, technology is making it easier than ever to keep business humming while keeping people safe.  

The risks of poor vegetation management

Cycle-based vegetation management is failing the electrical industry (and by extension, its customers). Not only do fixed annual cycles not respect changing weather patterns, they are incredibly expensive to operate with manual tools. And they do absolutely nothing for emergencies, adding both cost and anxiety to every vegetation management team. 

 

Source: https://twitter.com/ZekeJMiller/status/1417134929582960643 

 

Electrical utilities face three key risks from cycle-based vegetation management:

  1. Environmental: Risks of trees falling, wildfires, and ruining ecosystem habitats that roll up to supporting and feeding animals and humans. 
  2. Human: Thousands of homes are ruined (and dozens of people die) in mudslides, wildfires, or other weather-related vegetation disasters each year. 
  3. Financial: Emergency fixes, repairs, and at-fault incident fines add incredible expense to the bottom line.

Each of these problems, thankfully, can be mitigated with the right technology.

Three ways technology improves vegetation management

In the electrical utility industry, there are three different ways technology helps address the core problems associated with cycle-based vegetation management. 

1. Sensors enable more frequent checks and preventative maintenance

Instead of the high cost of a full team with trucks and ladders, smaller sensors can be left in locations 24/7. Utility companies get ongoing data feeds, not dissimilar from a utility meter, that give an indication of when things might break down. If the metrics start going off, a preventative maintenance team can assess to ensure there’s no additional risk - or fix a small error before it becomes a major problem.

2. Vegetation intelligence software helps with more accurate predictions

Sensors or manual data gathering are helpful for understanding immediate changes, but improvements in AI and predictive analytics are making ongoing vegetation intelligence even easier. In conjunction with both humans and sensor assessments, an AI-powered software can let you know days, weeks, or even months in advance if something might go wrong onsite. It can predict things like tree growth and weather patterns that can help your ongoing and preventative maintenance avert disaster.

3. Virtual inspection platforms make it easy to crowdsource emergency documentation

Even with the best technology, emergencies and accidents happen. With the old way of doing things, you wouldn’t know what was going on until you got on-site. Virtual inspections have become more common, and the technology has improved to the point where electrical utilities can put a call out for crowd-sourced content at the site of a potential emergency. If someone from the team or the public is already on site, they can immediately connect with utility companies over video (then evacuate for safety), so you have a record of where it started and what you’re up against. 

Work smarter, not harder

Optimizing and combining different data sources - including inspections and ground data - drives reliability and safety of the grid. This doesn’t need to be at the expense of your people or your bottom line, though. Automate the quality assurance and control processes with technology so you can focus on keeping people safe and on keeping business growing. 

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