Davies Consulting

Strategies for Complex Organizations

The Ice Storm Cometh

“If we hadn’t our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries – the ice storm: when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top – ice that is as bright and clear as crystal. Then the wind waves the branches and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence.” ― Mark Twain

The Art & Science of Vegetation Management

Trees provide a majestic beauty that most people can appreciate. A perfectly canopied neighborhood street, an untouched wood, a tree-shaded play yard, and – yes – the brilliant beauty of a winter ice storm (as described by Mark Twain) – are the romanticized settings of some of life’s sweetest moments.

Electric utilities face a less-dreamy reality when it comes to trees. In 2008, the Edison Electric Institute found that two-thirds of electrical outages are weather-related, and one-third of those were due to vegetation contact with power lines. Trees growing unabated alongside power lines contribute to many customer interruptions and present a major maintenance challenge for utility companies, on blue sky days and in severe weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, and ice storms). Breaking or uprooted trees can have disastrous impacts for electric utilities and their customers in the form of extended outages due to downed power lines and poles.

When outages happen, utilities rebuild the electrical line, a dangerous and time consuming work effort, even as they assist their coping, but frustrated, customers. Tree-related outages can drive customers’ ire, which often prompts regulator support for more aggressive pruning efforts and increased tree trimming budgets. On the other hand, as utilities increase tree trimming and danger tree removal efforts, a significant friction point is exposed between the public’s desire for reliable electricity and the aesthetic appeal of a lush neighborhood tree canopy. Anti-trimming protest often intensifies as memories of the outage fade.

Leading utilities establish proactive vegetation management programs to reduce the possibility of tree-related outages and to enable better communication with regulators about how to fund tree trimming schedules. The funds support certified arborists and degreed foresters working with experienced line-clearance crews to trim trees growing near power lines, balancing the health of trees with electrical safety and infrastructure integrity.

We see successful utilities working with property owners and customers to schedule proactive pruning and communicating with regulators to gain adequate funding approval – both in support of well-designed, methodical tree trimming schedules. The goal is to advance customer satisfaction by protecting reliability AND trees while keeping costs within budget, and many utilities find themselves asking how much is too much when it comes to vegetation management.

The nuts and bolts of how a utility approaches vegetation management is not random or “eye-balling” the challenge. Instead, leading utilities use a data-based prioritization process to set tree trimming schedules that:

  • Focuses on worst performing circuits;
  • Acquires and applies the best possible data;
  • Prioritizes investments based upon a known, finite budget; and
  • Tracks progress against measurable objectives and using consistent metrics.

Utilities who implement these principles can focus dollars and effort on specific reliability goals. Circuits needing attention are managed based on an objective evaluation of trimming alternatives over time, which provides verifiable analysis and demonstrates the consequences of budget cuts as well as the benefits – including reduced restoration costs – that come from prudent, methodical vegetation management investments.

That kind of crystal clarity is not magical or romantic, but it’s certainly a beautiful thing for utility executives to behold.

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Miki Deric is managing partner at Davies Consulting.

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