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A $27 Billion Problem for Utilities: How Technology, Policy Evolved to Fight It

Bryan Friehauf's picture
EVP and GM of Enterprise Software Solutions Hitachi Energy

Bryan Friehauf is the EVP and GM of Enterprise Software Solutions at Hitachi Energy and has over 20 years of experience within the energy and software industry. Previously, Bryan was the General...

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  • Jun 27, 2022
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In the summer of 1996, western North America experienced dual power outages. In August of 2003, eastern North America had its turn. A confluence of factors contributed to the catastrophic outages, but a major factor was that the utility industry inadequately protected the transmission system from vegetation.

Every year across the United States, there are over 3,500 unexpected power outages. The cost to businesses alone accounts for about $27 billion per year. Despite policies focused on vegetation management, sustained outages on bulk electric system lines are growing, with about 25% of the outages due to vegetation. Meanwhile, the rise and severity of wildfires has increased, posing a consistent threat to grid reliability and safety. Nearly half of all utility related wildfires are caused when vegetation is subjected to sustained high winds, creating patterns of tree failure that are difficult to predict.

The utility industry has a vegetation management problem. To help manage this $27 billion problem, we need to first understand where the industry is at, evaluate the technology available to solve the issue, and then take advantage of new policy.

Where we stand with current vegetation management practices

Current methods of vegetation inspection often rely on entrenched human knowledge, siloed decision-making, and “pen and paper” solutions—all of which limit a utility's ability to plan effective and timely interventions on vegetation growth.

A constant challenge for right-of-way (ROW) coordinators or inspectors is how to plan and manage work. Every day, they try to align resources to tasks and manage those working around their territory. It’s tedious and time-intensive, leaving no time to actually plan.

Customer notifications, easement processes, and environmental complexities can easily fall to the wayside. These items require a considerable amount of time to sort through. Additionally, sporadic requests for capital project access, invoicing, budgeting, or general information, eat up even more time.

When not dealing with the constant barrage of asks, ROW coordinators struggle to plan. Most methods of planning are time-intensive and often fail to capture complications and nuances of vegetation and terrain conditions. A helicopter inspection – the primary method for planning today – doesn’t provide data on all those needs. Instead, the teams are mainly looking for urgent issues and asking themselves, ”Which ‘fire’ should I put out first?”

Currently, we see vegetation management practices and ROW coordinators constrained by the location of equipment and crew availability. This is especially true in rural settings. Those dealing with vegetation are underbudgeted, understaffed and generally overwhelmed – even though their work could save $27 billion annually.

How artificial intelligence and space exploration can change the game

Technology has evolved past helicopters in recent years. Vegetation manages can now use drones, for instance. And new artificial intelligence and advanced analytics can help ROW managers analyze and prioritize vegetation needs.

By applying continuous machine learning to imagery and leveraging historical data, utilities can improve future AI prediction accuracy and modeling of complex environmental conditions in and around the ROW through a connected process.

Yet another major untapped opportunity is satellite imagery. A boost in satellite imagery and satellite constellations has made it easier and more affordable to use satellite imagery for a variety of uses, including ROW. Leveraging AI, ROW coordinators can analyze and act on images and videos from all different sources – helicopters, satellites, drones, cameras on the ground, and more.

The key here is that the ROW coordinators don’t need to do all the data review and identify next steps on their own. AI can sort and stitch together the images and provide recommendations on what it sees, pulling in insights from other data sources like terrain conditions and the type of vegetation.  

The incorporation of satellite technology also allows utilities to cover and survey their entire territory without having to deploy extensive resources. It helps them quickly confirm line clearances and maintain compliance with utility commission and federal regulations. Satellite technology also provides organizations with more comprehensive insights at scale, allowing them to reduce cost and emissions by minimizing truck and helicopter flights.

By combining the images with climate, ecosystem and cut plan data and machine learning algorithms, utilities can gain instant grid-wide visibility and push insights generated to back-office planners, field coordinators, and arborists via mobile systems. All of this allows for a more complete assessment of risks posed by vegetation, permitting field teams to focus internal efforts on pinpointing areas of risk during patrols and pre-worksite inspection activities. It also gives them the ability to take analytics-guided actions to protect the lines and maintain easements.  

Yet the availability technology alone doesn’t spur innovation and adoption. It needs to align with policies.

What policy means for the adoption of the technology

The confluence of advances in technology and policy enables utilities to tackle the $27 billion problem in a way they haven’t done before. Despite increases in extreme weather and wildfires, advances in vegetation resource planning technology can help utilities counteract the growth of sustained outages and the drain on their vegetation management departments.

Today, federal regulations still confine aerial inspection and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to line-of-sight operations. Yet there’s just some places you can’t fly. Despite efforts to expand policies, there remain extensive security, privacy, and liability concerns related to UAS and aerial inspections.

In contrast, recently adopted rules from the Federal Aviation Administration have created a more streamlined launch process for commercial satellites. Because of this, we’re seeing more launches of smaller satellites to construct constellations.

This has paved the way for utilities to adopt satellite technology for uses like vegetation management and refocus their UAS on more specific tasks satellites can’t achieve (at least not right now), like safety inspections.

Utilities face an increasing number of outages caused by vegetation management. Climate change is causing larger, more frequent storms and the White House wants more transmission lines to enable our clean energy future, meaning there’s more equipment than ever to maintain. The number of vegetation-caused outages will likely continue to rise unless organizations adopt new technologies, like AI and satellites.

The technology can create a way to digitalize human knowledge, free up time to plan and even help ROW coordinators plan. Predictive models can help prioritize work planning, helping teams meet planning efforts, cycle goals and reliability objectives. The time is now to rethink vegetation management, and thankfully, recent innovations in AI, advanced analytics and spaceborne technology and the right policy environment has create a new path forward.

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Thank Bryan for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 27, 2022

The technology can create a way to digitalize human knowledge, free up time to plan and even help ROW coordinators plan.

This is a critical message, as it combats to anxiety that digital technologies are here to replace jobs when, in fact, it's here to enhance and make easier and more productive those jobs

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Jul 29, 2022

Good points. In the past, utilities were limited in how they addressed this area. Now with the technology evolution that you mentioned, they have more tools in the box in trying to do what needs to be done as cost effectively as possible. 

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