Caught in the Storm: Proactive Approach to Vegetation Management

Industry // July 09, 2016

By Senior Technology Consultant Nathan Jones

As a service to their customers, almost every utility provides safety tips to help guide them in the event of a storm related power outage. Some utilities provide exhaustive lists of things to do, and some take a more philosophical approach to outage preparation.

Some of the most common suggestions are:

  • Consider purchasing a backup generator to provide auxiliary power during an outage.
  • If you do use a generator, utilize carbon monoxide alarms to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Avoid excessively opening the refrigerator so it can stay cold as long as possible.
  • Unplug all sensitive electronic devices to avoid a power surge when power is restored.
  • Maintain a supply of nonperishable food and water for emergencies.
  • Keep an emergency preparedness kit on hand and fully stocked.

These are all great suggestions, and should all be followed if you wish to pass the storm with as little inconvenience as possible. By the same token, progressive utilities use vegetation management

to help prepare for extreme weather conditions. VM operations are typically one of the largest expenditures for electric utilities. The methods and philosophies in which different utilities conduct those operations, however, vary greatly. Any utility that is earnestly interested in the reliability of their system will consistently keep storm resiliency in mind with their practices in year-round daily operations. Trees should not just be pruned with current and future conditions in mind, but also how the trees will react to extreme storm conditions. Overhang needs to be pulled back, exposed or weak root systems need to be identified and the tree removed if risk is unacceptable, and weak crotches need to be identified and addressed. If utilities give into the temptation to let problem trees slide, the entire system becomes more and more vulnerable.

The term “storm hardening” means different things to different departments within a utility, but to vegetation managers, it means getting tougher on clearance guidelines and identifying hazardous trees outside of the normal right-of-way (ROW).

Here are three steps that we’ve found to be helpful:

  1. Go electronic with your workflows. Keeping a system’s worth of data on paper is hard enough under normal circumstances, let alone while facing the increased organizational and personnel challenges of storm hardening. Having a comprehensive database of vegetation on a power system means fewer problems get swept under the rug.
  2. Make sure the UVM guidelines are on par with other utilities that are leading the way in storm resiliency. There are several utilities leading the way in the field of storm preparation, and they are happy to share their research and methodology. Work planners and field crews need to know exactly what the trimming specifications are, and which trees need to be addressed with an eye toward storm conditions.
  3. During the inspection process, identify hazard trees outside of the ROW that are susceptible to failure in a storm. I know from personal experience that working on trees lying outside of the ROW can be a complicated and contentious process, but the long-term benefits will outweigh any short-term headaches. Whether it is through a tree replacement program, doing a little extra work for that customer, or getting the legal department involved, getting rid of off-ROW hazard trees is a must to keep the lights on. If your utility already has taken these three steps – good for you!

If not, these suggestions might be helpful in working toward a more storm-resilient power system.

When it’s 80 degrees and sunny, it is easy to go about your business and let a few borderline trees slide. However, hurricane season, heavy spring snows, and summer thunderstorms are right around the corner. Take a few extra moments to imagine how that tree that isn’t trimmed to specifications will look with 12 inches of wet snow on it and a 40 mph gust blowing. Of course no system can be 100 percent immune to storm related outages, but with a little attention to detail throughout the year, you can be well on your way to significantly reducing the number and duration of vegetation caused outages. Just don’t forget to actually enjoy it when it’s 80 degrees and sunny!

Terra Spectrum Technologies Technology Consultant Nathan Jones wrote an article titled “Caught in the Storm: Proactive Approach to Vegetation Management.” The article was published in the 2016 July/August issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.