Vegetation management: Not sexy, but vitally important

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Vegetation management by electric utilities is not the most exciting or sexy topic to discuss, but it is vitally important, as recent incidents around the California wildfires have brought to the fore.

In fact, vegetation management is frequently the single largest line item in annual operating budgets, exceeding $100 million annually in many larger utilities. 

And vegetation management was the subject of a well-attended megasession on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at the 2019 DistribuTECH conference and exhibition.

Speaking of the wildfires, Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission, discussed the “wildfire challenge” in 2018, during which 143 civilians and eight firefighters died. She said that during the October 2017 “fire siege,” 12 wildfires in northern California were caused by utility electric power equipment.

Overall, she said, utility ignitions are responsible for about 10% of all wildfires in the state. She presented research showing the No. 1 cause of wildfires is vegetation contact with transmission lines, with the No. 2 cause being wire/splice failure. Together, these two account for about half of all utility infrastructure fire ignitions.

And in California, Malashenko said, utilities spend about $1 billion annually on vegetation management.

Hagen Haentsch, director of the distribution operations center for Oncor, is responsible for the western half of Texas, where large trees and other such vegetation is scarce. Instead, their challenge revolves around large-scale grass fires, which leave poles burnt at the bottom. However, the eastern part of the state does contain tall pine trees and hardwoods.

The company has a total of 137,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines.

Haentsch said one of the most promising opportunities his company has is around analytics, essentially combining internal and external data sets.

The third panelist, Hendrik F. Hamann, distinguished research staff member with IBM Research, talked about the opportunities arising from the fact that our physical world is being digitalized. From IoT data available from sensors and cell phones and remote sensing data from drones and satellites, data abounds and the challenges of using it in a way that benefits utilities lies in data integration and “scalable” analytics.

He gave the example of integrating data from a variety of sources to identify areas of concern or areas that need addressed. In regard to trees growing close to transmission lines, that data can be combined and used to determine proximity, and by using canopy size data, utilities can infer the height of the tree and make decisions to send crews to address specific situations, rather than having to manually check or monitor miles and miles of lines.

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