Where did the expression ‘common sense’ come from when it often appears it is all but common?
If you have distribution lines, what is the largest O & M expense item? Unless your service territory happens to have a low percentage of forest cover, I would expect it is vegetation management. What is the largest cause of unplanned outages? It might be lightning, equipment failure or vegetation. For many of you vegetation or trees will be the number one cause. If the answer to the first question was vegetation management and to the second, trees, what would common sense dictate? I would suggest it is that VM would receive greatest support and assignment of resources. How are you doing on that?
I’m going to break my comments down into staffing/qualification, funding and support.
First, what are the qualifications of the person overseeing and persons managing the VM program? There are still utilities that think that engineers and linemen can handle all aspects of the VM program. I am not going to suggest that they can’t learn to do so but it is going to take time, probably far more time than you think. When you get push back from a community about your pruning program can the people managing the VM program explain the practices in a way that is credible to outside or community arborists? Can they explain your herbicide program; why herbicides are an essential component of an integrated vegetation management program in addition to environmental impacts such as species diversity and abundance, herbicide treated right-of-way use potential for pollinators and wildlife? Or do you expect the herbicide applicator you hired to do this?
You’ve heard the expression that if the only tool you have is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail? I’d suggest another form of the same. If the only tool you have is a hammer then your focus is on finding nails. If you asked me to patrol your lines for vegetation issues but wanted me to also pick up faulty insulators, ties, cross-arms and poles I confess I would do a lousy job. Why? Because I see trees and if there are any trees in vicinity of a cracked insulator I would get the tree information but there’s a good chance I’d miss the cracked insulator. Oh, I’d pick up gross faults like a broken pole top pin because all of a sudden there would be change in the separation from the neutral or between the phases. For a lineman patrolling the line, the data would be flipped in that the facility defects would be more detailed and accurate than the tree data. Most utilities have recognized this natural tendency and limitation and consequently have separated line and vegetation patrols. Why would you have a lineman attempt to conduct both patrols? The obvious reason is that one patrol costs less than two. However, you are unlikely to have true picture of the work volume and consequently, if your service territory has 40% or more tree cover the trend in your tree-related outages won’t be down.
Plumbers, electricians and dentists are all very familiar with pliers. Yet, we don’t expect the dentist to do our house wiring nor the plumber to pull teeth. Why would we fail to make distinctions in expertise when it comes to VM?
If your largest O & M expense is vegetation management and the largest cause of unplanned service interruptions is trees, common sense would suggest hiring the best VM expertise available. There are utilities that resist this common sense as illustrated when NERC FAC 003 was being developed a requirement for the VM program to be directed by a professional vegetation manager was opposed and rejected. I admit that the need for a professional vegetation manager may be more difficult to recognize on transmission as trees are not likely the major cause of outages nor is VM likely the largest O & M item. However, in this rejection of qualifications in favor of ‘flexibility’ it’s been accepted that familiarity with pliers is all that’s needed, regardless of application.
Maybe your utility is small and you can’t justify a full-time position of the best available VM expertise. What do you do in other circumstances like this? Do you water down the qualifications to accomplish a financial objective or do you contract outside expertise? You probably hire outside engineering expertise for major line additions. You may have vehicles serviced by outside mechanics. Why not the same for VM? Of course, you need to first recognize the need, but having done so, you could establish a contract with a consultant to provide the expertise on a more as needed basis.