Vegetation management is something that energy networks need to deal with. But there are better ways of handling it. Image Credit: Shutterstock

As temperatures rise, the threat of wildfires is growing worldwide. Energy network utilities play an important role in mitigating this impact of climate change, by minimizing the risk of fires that are due to overgrown or falling vegetation near power lines.

Vegetation management is not a new focus for energy networks. In fact, given the amounts networks spend on vegetation management (the largest operating expenditure for most networks), it remains a top priority for many. Adopting a bionic approach can reduce costs and risks while boosting employee performance.

Companies can bolster their vegetation management decisions by combining advanced analytics with a clear understanding of what drives value and better ways of working. Taking this approach, some energy networks have reduced costs by 20-30 per cent without increasing risk. They have also held more-informed discussions with customers and regulators and significantly improved employee engagement and performance.

The bionic approach to vegetation management has four facets.

Start with clear and ambitious business outcomes

Energy networks should begin by focusing on business outcomes that they want to achieve, rather than on the latest features of a technology. It’s important to understand how leveraging data and analytics can help accomplish the following goals:

• Focusing spending on high-risk areas and best treatment methods: By concentrating resources in areas with the greatest hazards, companies can reduce risks in those areas.

• Lowering inspection and audit costs: Networks can reduce costs by automating inspections and audits, a step that also allows networks to fine-tune frequency of these activities and collect higher-quality data.

• Optimizing cutting cycles: By predicting tree growth and adjusting cutting intervals, networks can reduce the volume of trees cut and the frequency with which they are cut without increasing risk.

• Deploying contractors strategically: Companies can use contractors more effectively by telling them exactly when and where to cut or remove trees, which can also eliminate unnecessary travel, scoping, and treatment costs.

• Securing Better Prices from Contractors. Networks can help their contractors become more efficient by improving resource planning, remotely scoping and planning work, avoiding duplicate audits, and minimizing contractor travel. Contractors, in turn, can lower their prices.

• Tracking contractors’ performance more effectively: Companies can collect fieldwork data in close to real-time, which enables optimal monitoring of contractors’ performance.

• Engaging with regulators more efficiently. Networks can engage with regulators based on outcomes (that is, the risks they’ve addressed) rather than inputs (such as how frequently they cut trees and how far they travel). This is key to achieving better outcomes for customers.

Focus on delivering value - fast

Energy networks should use agile ways of working to deliver minimum viable products. For example, cross-functional teams could build predictive models for vegetation growth in test-and-learn iterations. Agile ways of working are usually more efficient and effective than the traditional approach.

Take an end-to-end perspective

It is critical to design a vegetation management system with an end-to-end process in mind, rather than a specific technology since applicable technologies are evolving very quickly. For some energy networks, combining granular field-based data with publicly available data on vegetation species and weather has proved the most efficient approach to building a system; others have preferred using LiDAR or aerial photography.

Yet another option is multi-spectral high-resolution satellite stereoscopic imagery, which is reaching maturity.

Networks should start mapping out how the process should work to achieve the company’s goals. That includes determining which data capture and analytics technologies can best deliver the insights needed to measure the state of vegetation, predict vegetation growth and health, and define treatment priorities.

Make contracting relationships collaborative

Strong contractor collaboration, including joint planning and bilateral data sharing, is critical to enabling improved vegetation management. However, energy networks should go further, creating strategic, long-term relationships with contractors and collaborating with them on a day-to-day basis.

Networks should also provide incentives for contractors to provide more precise estimates of the volumes of trees in need of treatment. Such information enables networks to refine their predictive models.

The time has come to take vegetation management to the next level. Adopting a bionic approach can reduce costs and risks while boosting employee performance. Networks that wish to create impact from the beginning should start with the business outcome and iteratively implement solutions, keeping an end-to-end perspective in mind.