How Mobile GIS Streamlines Vegetation Management

Vegetation management is a significant and costly part of utility operations -- maintaining the distribution and transmission infrastructure is critical to continuous energy delivery. But with unprecedented demands for power, this job is harder than ever before.

Outages, caused primarily by vegetation contact, increased 285% between 1984 and 2013.

This increase has continued throughout the past decade. In response, governments are placing new pressures on utility providers to find solutions or face financial penalties.

And yet, utilities still rely on traditional maintenance cycles and outdated field devices.

Technology platforms - like Mobile GIS - can improve vegetation management inspection times and reduce costs. Mobile GIS can connect siloed information by integrating intelligent geospatial data and high resolution imagery with digitally optimized field devices connected to office workflows and maintenance systems.

New to Mobile GIS? Understand what makes the software distinct in Unearth's guide to Mobile GIS.

By bringing vegetation management into the 21st century, utilities can reduce potential hazards through predictive and proactive measures, and respond faster and smarter to outages when they happen.

Regulated Vegetation Management: Too Much Data, Too Little Time

Vegetation management costs utilities of $6-8 billion annually.

The United States energy grid is extensive. Valued between $1.5 and $2 trillion dollars, it represents a huge investment in effective infrastructure. However, with over 60% of the grid built prior to the 1980s, it is also dated.

With a record $22.2 billion spent on electric transmission, up 25% from 2013, maintaining this grid requires massive operational expenditures. Protecting these investments while ensuring seamless power delivery is no small task.

This grid is already vulnerable and vegetation encroachment poses numerous additional risks. In fact, vegetation management programs are generally a utility’s single largest maintenance line-item. Yet, the day-to-day vegetation management operations remain rooted in out-dated workflows and methodologies.

Improving vegetation management operations will not come through more boots on the ground, but through better data management and the integration of Mobile GIS. To fully understand the next era of vegetation management operations, it’s important first explore the challenges faced within the industry.

a stack of regulation under FERC and NERC

Modern regulation requires accessible asset data

NERC fines can cost up to $1 million per violation.

Utility providers must contend with more regulation than ever before. Yet, data and reporting systems - a crucial component of effective compliance - are based on legacy era oversight.

A response to major storm and vegetation outages, the 2005 Energy Policy Act led to the creation of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). NERC is subject to oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which together set the standards for vegetation management and electric infrastructure best practices.

NERC includes multiple regional entities:

  1. MRO (Midwest Reliability Organization)
  1. NPCC (Northeast Power Coordinating Council)
  1. RF (Reliability First - Mid-Altantic and Great Lakes)
  1. SERC (Southeast Reliability Council)
  1. TRE (Texas Reliability Entity)
  1. WECC (Western Electricity Coordinating Council)

a transmission line alongside vegetation

Transmission and Distribution

Not all vegetation management falls under the same regulations.

Transmission lines are high-voltage, typically operating above 200,000 volts (200kV). These lines are connected by tall steel towers and run from the energy generation source to local distribution centers. Transmission lines fall under NERC and FERC regulation.

Distribution lines are low voltage, typically operating below 100,000 volts (100kV). These lines run throughout urban and populated areas on telephone poles to deliver power to end-users. Local distribution lines can follow NERC and FERC guidelines, but typically fall under state and local regulations.

a vegetation management crew working in the field

Inspection cycles rely on outdated data management strategies

Power lines are geographically dispersed across the U.S. - spanning nearly 5.7 million miles.

Historically, vegetation management has relied on manual inspection cycles: averaging 4-8 years from start to finish. These legacy routines - relying on multiple visual inspections and a mixed media documentation process - often fail to preempt potential issues and regularly fall behind schedule.

Legislation standardized vegetation management regulation, but has done little to improve efficiency.

For more than 60 years, utility companies have practiced the wire-zone border-zone method to manage rights-of-way (ROW) and reduce the risk of vegetation outage. Transmission owners must perform vegetation inspections on 100% of their applicable lines once per calendar year, with no more than 18 months between inspections of the same ROW.

Each inspection requires evidence in the form of date stamped work orders, invoices, and other records - all of which are captured on paper, hard drives, and spreadsheets. This disparate documentation process is plagued by delays and lost information.

In fact, public utility commissions regularly cite electric providers for failing to complete ROW inspections in compliance with modern regulation.

Mobile GIS offers utilities the chance to address these data challenges effectively.

Increase Efficiency by Equipping Field Teams with Mobile GIS

Mobile GIS is map-based software that visualizes a mixed dataset (GIS, LiDAR, drones, satellite, and more) on any device.

This brings the power of GIS and other remote technologies to field teams, and ultimately transforms routine inspection cycles.

Minimize inspection times with LiDAR, drones, and satellite

Drones can reduce inspection times between 55% and 99%.

Routine on-the-ground inspections are informative. They are also time consuming, expensive, and require sufficient manpower. As it stands, the utilities industry is facing the largest retirement wave in history, so more boots on the ground is a difficult option.

Instead, utilities must look to remote inspection solutions - and many already are. Global electric utilities are expected to spend $13 billion a year on drones and robotics by 2026.

a drone flown in a forest for vegetation management

Available remote inspection technologies

Utilities can use remote inspection technologies to access areas with seasonal limitations or other obstructions. With Mobile GIS, data is uploaded instantly to the cloud and made accessible throughout a company’s entire system: reducing costs and providing updates in real-time.

LiDAR

High resolution aerial imagery through LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), can identify specific species along a ROW to pinpoint trees that need attention, intelligently transforming inspection cycles.

Satellite

Instant data acquisition, including historical data, is possible through global satellite imagery and is widely available to utility companies. Comparing historical and current data can detect change that is often invisible to the naked eye.

Drone

Drones are cost effective and user-friendly tools that can be used to capture aerial imagery on-the-fly. When areas are inaccessible due to obstructions, or a birds-eye-view is needed, field teams can use drones to capture images or video for inspections.

In addition to increased inspection efficiency, aerial survey data can produce 3D models of built-assets and real-time vegetation encroachment. Running these images through a predictive analytics system or tree trimming model can revolutionize out-dated systems and improve reliability by 10% or more.

While initial costs to implement LiDAR and advanced aerial systems can be high, their confidence ratings are superior to on-the-ground inspections. Plus, they generate data that quickly reduces operational costs.

Ultimately, these devices help maximize resources by ensuring field teams are deployed strategically to high-growth, high-risk areas: leading to millions in annual savings. Providers without clear data management plans have been overwhelmed by these new standards: making clear the need for digital data integration.

satellite imagery of a forest

Increase productivity with Mobile GIS’s geospatial workflows

The vegetation management industry is characterized by complex and unstructured data.

Vegetation management data capture and sharing currently relies on out-dated systems, spreadsheets, and manual communication - resulting in information silos and problematic data integrity.

Disparate file types and varied communication channels (paper, email, flash drives, etc.) make for a slow and costly system. Currently, field-to-office data transfer still takes 24 hours to one week. This latency is inefficient and error prone.

By combining map-based data and smart field devices, utilities can enact real-time geospatial workflow solutions with Mobile GIS. Smart field devices can enable instant notifications, reroute crews, and provide invaluable real-time updates.

Equipping field technicians with geosnatially synced mobile 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.

A forward-thinking approach to vegetation management will require real-time data-syncing in the field, as well as uploading historical data into an intelligent system. Companies must use this data to transition from routine cycles to condition-based, predictive maintenance.

Potential savings from advanced data-driven analytics and smart device equipped field crews could be in the tens of millions.

A utility worker accessing asset information in a mobile GIS

Respond in real-time to regulatory change

Local politicians have proposed increased penalties for utility companies that fail to quickly and adequately respond to storm-related outages.

The regulatory landscape is changing constantly. Predicting and therefore minimizing inevitable system breakdowns is now a necessity, both for performance and the bottom line.

When new regulation is passed, providers cannot afford to work through a backlog of unstructured data to adjust practices or comply with reporting.

Digitally equipped field teams, dispersed remote sensing, and accurate geospatial data form an integrated technology ecosystem that produces, stores, and analyzes a wealth of data. Meanwhile, synced cloud-systems enable data to move freely between people and teams - no matter their location or device.

Together these tools provide better analytics and intelligent field operations, enabling a more effective response to changing regulatory demands.

Deep Dive: Improve Weather Resilience Through Robust Data Integration

Between 1980 and 2013, a combined 144 major weather disasters cost the American economy more than $1 trillion in damage.

Cyclical vegetation management focuses on regular growing cycles. However, vegetation-caused outages due to extreme weather events are increasing.

The twenty-first century grid faces unprecedented threats from natural disasters. Extreme weather events cause outages and service disruptions that put lives at risk and can bankrupt utility providers.

Between 2003 and 2012, there were nearly 700 power outages: each affecting at least 50,000 customers and costing the U.S. economy roughly $20 billion. In fact, the five-year outage average has doubled every five years since 2000.

Routine cycles and legacy reporting tools are ill-equipped to meet the new normal of weather disasters.

Precedents for regulation

In 2003, the modern era of disaster regulation began in Ohio when a tree fell into a power line - causing a historic blackout that affected 50 million people in eight states and Canada. Total associated costs reached $10 billion.

Following the event, NERC developed the Transmission Vegetation Management Program, which disrupted the entire utilities industry and sparked discussions concerning prevention, maintenance, risk, and safety. Nearly twenty years later, the extreme weather events in Texas in 2021 led to billion dollar lawsuits and the resignation of multiple high-level officials.

While the next major event is unknown, utilities can be certain that it will happen and must do everything they can to prepare.

a lightning storm

The top five extreme weather risks

Climate change is intensifying: increasing the number of extreme weather events that hit the U.S. each year.

Following the events of tropical storm Isaias (2005) and hurricane Sandy (2012), which left 2 million customers without power in the New York Tri-State area, Columbia and Con Edison identified five key climate driven risks:

  • Hurricane-strength winds
  • Extreme heat
  • Sea level rise
  • Coastal storm surges
  • Flooding

Vegetation management programs across the seven NERC regions lack the digital tools and data integration necessary to address these challenges effectively.

Advanced metering and notifications for faster storm response

92% of storm outages are the result of vegetation being knocked into power lines.

Utility providers have relied on historical weather patterns to anticipate seasonal maintenance needs, but those models are out-dated and have failed to predict new and 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.

For example, in 2011, smart grid implementations prior to hurricane Irene’s landfall in North Carolina, minimized the storm’s impact on the grid - even with thousands of downed power lines. By identifying areas most likely to experience an outage, smart metering systems notified consumers and service teams were deployed almost immediately to affected areas.

A robust Mobile GIS can integrate data from dispersed smart sensors, minimizing the reliance on low-resolution regional weather stations. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can process these large data sets, make updates instantly, and accurately respond to new weather conditions.

When an outage does occur, these systems can notify customers and dispatch field crews in real-time. This can improve customer relations, while protecting against penalties and other financial liabilities.

a wildfire beneath transmission lines

Prevention and strategic deployment during wildfires and heatwaves

Electric infrastructure components are one of the primary causes of wildfire ignition in dry-climate western states. Though most of these fires are small, the leading cause is contact between electric equipment and vegetation.

Utility companies need to be increasingly proactive to prevent these ignitions, as drought and heat waves exacerbate fires big and small. Failing to do so can lead to outsized risk. For example, the 2017-2018 wildfires in California placed $30 billion in liabilities on providers. As a result, one of the country’s largest electric providers was forced to reorganize.

Development and sprawl place pressure on utilities to inspect transmission lines once located far from populated areas. Heat waves and fires require that front-line workers be deployed strategically to problem areas.

To effectively deploy these teams, utilities must use advanced ticketing systems and accurate GIS data to ensure route optimization.

Using historical asset data stored on cloud systems, field crews can then identify and retrofit or replace aging components that pose contact risks. These preventative measures can reduce fire risks by 25%.

By strategically replacing aging grid components in fire prone areas and updating cycles to meet changing population densities, utilities can improve risk management and comply with regulatory requirements.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set a 103°F threshold as a worker safety heat index. From 1998 - 2017 only 2 days per year on average surpassed this threshold. Projections suggest that this number will increase to at least 5 and possibly 20 by 2050, reducing maintenance labor days by a factor of ten.

Conclusion

Vegetation management is mission critical for electric transmission and distribution operations. With strict regulation, an aging grid, and increasing extreme weather, business as usual will not be enough.

To promptly clear inspection areas, guarantee uninterrupted delivery, and safeguard public and environmental safety, utilities must revisit their vegetation management approach and seek out new digital solutions.

a field worker using Mobile GIS for vegetation management

Integrating a Mobile GIS that incorporates digital tools and real-time remote data generation offers a number of key benefits:

  • Improve operational and maintenance work flows
  • Minimize onboarding and training cycles
  • Manage risk and response times
  • Reduce costs and redundancies
  • Connect information silos and data across networks

Robust and accessible data increases operational transparency with shareholders and customers. Intelligent systems can then forecast potential threats and update inspection cycles to meet the needs of a changing human and environmental landscape in relation to the existing grid.

Providers that adopt new methods will improve grid resilience and weather the changing vegetation management landscape.

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