For electric distribution companies it’s common that the single largest cause of unplanned outages is trees and if vegetation management is not the single largest O & M item, it is certainly near the top of the list.
Engineering is high tech, bushwhacking is not
Are company resources assigned based on the VM’s profile in O & M and reliability? No? Well has treating the VM group like the poor cousin when it comes to support services worked well for you?
VM is one of the major contact points between your company and customers. When you think about it, I think you’ll concede only the billing department has a broader and more frequent reach. Given that, does the VM group have strong, dedicated support from your Public Affairs group? By strong support, I mean does the Public Affairs group actually listen to and consult the VM group in terms of the message that is put in front of the public?
It takes dedicated support because it takes some time for a person to become educated on VM issues. Only, one of the frustrations vegetation managers face is when someone from the company has given incorrect information to an individual or the public, leaving the VM group to play the ‘bad cop’ or worse, to be viewed as a bunch of ill-educated, unreasonable, unyielding bushwhackers. Just about everybody loves trees, but very few people understand the electric safety and reliability implications of tree to conductor contacts. Even less have any true arboricultural knowledge.
Given tree pruning and tree removals are often an emotional issue, how much is expended in providing the landowner or the community with the education necessary to form the foundation to understanding the why, what, how and when of VM. Do you have contractors meet customers face to face to explain what they want to do, why the utility needs to do it and to obtain landowner agreement to the proposed work? Do you support your VM staff spending evenings or weekends attending, making presentations to garden, horticultural clubs? (And when I say support that means not only encourage such activities but also that you treat the staff fairly in terms of time off in lieu or compensation). Yes, such activities cost time and, therefore, money. If you don’t provide this type of support or haven’t as a minimum done these things as a pilot, then you have focused on constraining or cutting VM expenditures rather than on the outcomes provided by good VM.
Can't see the forest for the trees?
When you are a senior utility decision maker, your accountants are only one of your advisors. The only advice they can give you regarding VM is to reduce costs. How will that serve you in future years? Will it improve safety and reliability? Will it improve funding or credibility with your board or regulators? The accountants can’t possibly tell you how to get the best return for O & M dollars spent on VM. That can only be accomplished by tallying and valuing the outcomes of various VM actions or initiatives relative to costs. It will require a multidisciplinary team, one in which the VM group leads by proposing and implementing the initiative. The VM group needs to be supported by the addition of at least one member to the team that is skilled in financial analysis.
Passing the buck
I’m going to cover a few topics responsible for considerable hair loss among vegetation managers which have and continue to drive up O & M costs.
What formal connections have you established between your construction group and maintenance groups? Who establishes standards? Are your maintenance groups empowered to reject the handover of a new line that fails to meet standards? Is the construction group charged with providing a business case demonstrating an overall company/customer benefit for actions that transfer additional costs to the operating side? I have many times heard complaints about hand offs from construction to the VM group that stand out because they will incur above average maintenance costs.
Purchasing hero or zero
Another common utility complaint and this isn’t restricted to the VM group is the purchasing department lessening specifications for substantial cost savings. Of course, what they actually bought was an inferior product or service and the cost of this ignorance is borne by the O & M budget. Support your VM group by ensuring they are the final arbiter regarding the purchase or find a means of holding the purchasing group accountable for increased future costs.
Square Peg in a Round Hole
Here is the granddaddy of complaints I hear from vegetation managers: The company has purchased new software that inexplicably cannot communicate with legacy systems. Consequently, the systems the VM group developed and used are no longer functional but if enough of a hue and cry arises, they may be informed that the IT department will build them a new one. This typically leads to many years of frustration because it was the IT department who selected the introduced software either without consulting other groups or upon consultation, assiduously refused to hear anything about need, use and function. It should be obvious that without the operational expertise and an ability to listen, what they develop will fall far short of the desired functionality. But who cares. Isn’t it the accounting and IT departments that generate the company’s income? It is beyond comprehension to me.
Isn’t it logical that any new systems must, as a priority, serve the groups that account for the largest O & M spend?
Who you goin’ to call
Are trees the number one cause of unplanned service interruptions or in the top three causes? Have you asked your VM group what kind of information would help them to better understand and target the problem? Utilities universally have a tree cause code for outage reporting. Much can be added to provide insight. I’ll refer to two instances I encountered during Performance Management Audits for state regulatory commissions. The first utility broke down tree-caused outages into preventable and non-preventable. The second broke it down into tree located within right of way, tree located outside right of way, small branch failure, large branch failure, whole tree failure further described as uprooting, trunk bending, trunk break. This was complemented with an arborist review of some percentage of the offending trees. Clearly the first approach costs less but it only tracks experience and contributes nothing to identifying means of reducing tree-caused outages. If you want to reduce tree-related outages your VM group needs to have a seat at the reliability table.
Have I got a deal for you
VM is a complex field. Yes, as complex and technical as engineering. As vegetation managers our structures (trees) are not uniform and their load bearing variable. Their foundations are highly variable. Add to this the public scrutiny VM receives. If ever there was a situation that warranted research, VM is it. There is a need to prove to the public that first, the work the VM group undertakes is justified and secondly, that it is being performed in a sound technical and environmental manner. And your regulator wants proof that you are delivering excellent reliability for the dollar expended. If you aren’t spending on research you should thank the other utilities that do because you have been riding on their coattails.
Are you currently spending on VM research or interested in contributing to it. Well I want to draw your attention to a heck of an opportunity that will yield an extra 50%.
Who runs the asylum?
If you want to both manage the O & M expenditures on VM and to obtain the best outcomes for the dollars spent then it needs to be clear that other groups, such as accounting, purchasing, IT, within the company are to serve the VM group. These other groups and their expertise can serve to bring light to the area of VM but they are not in possession of the key needed to open the door.