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Transforming Vegetation Management at FPL: A Conversation with Iliana Rentz [Recognizing One of the 2022 Energy Central Innovation Champions: Iliana Rentz]

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  • May 25, 2022
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2022-05 - Leaders In Innovation, click here for more

Earlier this year, Energy Central dispatched our annual call for nominations for power professionals leading the way in Innovation, and we're proud to announce the 4 winners and 2 honorable mentions, which you can read about here. This week, we'll be spotlighting each of those 4 winners after conducting interviews to learn more about their great work. 

Please help us celebrate Iliana's and the other champions' successes by reading some of the insights garnered from these exclusive Innovation Champion Interviews.

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Iliana Rentz, head of Vegetation Management at Florida Power & Light Company (FPL), says this is an exciting time to be part of the energy industry as FPL uses new technology like drones and LiDAR to transform the way it manages vegetation to provide more reliable service to its customers. 

At FPL, Rentz’s team is constantly encouraged to find ways to leverage technology and think innovatively about improving customer service. FPL has transformed its vegetation management program from a manual and paper-intensive process to a fully electronic workflow and has developed a platform that integrates Geographic Information Systems (GIS), LiDAR and analytics to create 3D representations of the utility’s coverage area. 

These are complemented with 2D GIS-style visuals and reports to support the modernization of FPL’s vegetation management program.  Using technology allows FPL to make smarter and more prescriptive decisions about where to trim trees and vegetation near power lines, resulting in more reliable service for customers.   

The Challenges of Vegetation Management in Florida  

Florida is a unique case study in vegetation management. The Sunshine state’s tropical weather means that trees and vegetation grow year-round and faster than other environments that may be drier or cooler. The region is also infamous for being prone to hurricanes. [In fact, according to some estimates, Florida has been hit by the maximum number of Category 3 to Category 5 storms between 1851 and 2018 in the United States.] These storms leave significant destruction, including damaged power lines and equipment, to the grid in their wake. 

FPL’s main challenge after a hurricane or extreme weather event is restoring power safely and as quickly as possible to its customers. Being able to quickly assess damage, much of which is caused by downed trees and vegetation, is a key component in the restoration process. 

Integrating Technology into Vegetation Management 

To counter these challenges, FPL has integrated technology solutions into its operations. It has invested in drones  that can safely survey damage to its grid after hurricanes, often getting data from areas that are inaccessible to crews immediately after a storm. The utility has also kickstarted artificial intelligence and automation initiatives to analyze smart grid data and maximize efficiency in processing outage-related tickets. Latest technologies like LiDAR are also part of the utility’s toolkit for vegetation management. 

“Using technology eliminates lost  time,” Rentz told a panel discussion held earlier this year. “Machines and algorithms tell us the when, what and the where. When you’re in the right place at the right time, you’re avoiding future outages and providing better customer service.” 

The introduction of technology also has the potential to improve efficiency and provide better customer service. “Finding efficient ways to continue improving service is a constant imperative…and helps keep bills affordable,” Rentz told Energy Central. She says the end goal of FPL’s digital journey in vegetation management is to provide better service to customers. 

To balance practical business considerations with its investments in technology, the utility seeks end-to-end transparency to “continuously learn and optimize our resources.” In simple words, this means that it has a feedback loop to continuously refine and monitor the efficacy of its approach towards using technology-oriented solutions in its business. FPL also shares and uses best practices from industry groups, such as the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies (AEIC). Rentz says such partnerships enable the electric utility industry to function as single team and respond to major events more efficiently. 

Innovating At Utilities 

Instituting a culture that embraces change and encourages innovation can be a difficult task. 

Rentz says a solid change management plan to enable adoption of new technology can help matters. “We have trained our team to be change agents,” she says. The conversation about change begins during the hiring process itself, which is designed to hire personnel with the future vision of the program in mind. Innovation in teams is also a reflection and function of its leaders, according to Rentz. “Leaders who support their employees’ creativity will foster innovative environments,” she says. 

In addition to implementing training and programs for employees, FPL also offers members of its vegetation management team the chance to upgrade their skills. For example, certified arborists can sign up to obtain their drone pilot licenses.

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