In April of 2000, Johnson County Electric Cooperative and Earth County Electric Cooperative consolidated to establish United Cooperative Services. As one of the largest electric distribution cooperatives in Texas today, United Cooperative Services provides dependable power via more than 11,000 miles of energized line to 85,000 m across 14 counties.
Since United was established (and indeed, in the 62 years that our two predecessor cooperatives kept North Texas communities in power), we have been a completely member-focused organization. More than 60,000 residential and commercial members rely on us for safe, reliable power supply 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so the importance of providing exceptional service — by our organization and those that we work with — is a standard we will never relinquish.
One of the biggest influences on service reliability is something our members might not be aware of or even think about on a daily basis: vegetation management. And in a way, the goal is for members to not have to think about it. That’s because vegetation management ensures our members’ homes and businesses remain powered without interruption from outages caused by trees touching or falling on lines. Vegetation management, executed properly, identifies these hazard trees and other vegetation that pose risks to power distribution and addresses them scientifically and methodically.
United has always paid close attention to the vegetation present on our system and how it impacts electric delivery. We addressed trouble areas—internally referred to as “hotspots”—whenever and wherever they arose. When trimming or other vegetation management projects were scheduled for certain areas, we communicated closely with those members so they knew what to expect.
But when we engaged a third-party vegetation management company, ACRT, to conduct an assessment of our system through Arborcision—its proprietary analysis tool—it became apparent we weren’t approaching vegetation management as strategically as we could. The assessment revealed some valuable information, such as where our most historically troublesome areas were, as well as the makeup of the vegetation on our system and its growth patterns. More importantly, it showed us that our approach was more reactive rather than it was proactive — a strategy that would create current and long-term challenges, including reliable distribution and higher vegetation management costs.
Thus, in 2017, United decided to reevaluate its vegetation management program to ensure more satisfactory results. We engaged ACRT as our vegetation management consulting partner, who assisted in developing a strategy to target areas with our most problematic vegetation and make systematic and scientific changes. For example, whereas tree contractors had previously trimmed vegetation to address immediate concerns, we are now using calculated pruning techniques that prevent vegetation from growing back as quickly. This ensures that lines are safe from vegetation-related problems for longer periods, which not only improves reliable service to our members, but also reduces costs over the long-term by requiring less frequent trimming cycles.
Internally, we have also revised our approach to working with contractors. With highly trained ACRT arborists now sharing the responsibility of managing contractors along with United personnel, workloads are better organized and prioritized based on the tasks that will have the most immediate and beneficial results. Quality control has also improved in the form of audits conducted after vegetation work is completed. These audits ensure that all work was performed—and performed correctly. In the event that something was missed or executed incorrectly, the work is resubmitted to the contractor to correct at no additional cost to the cooperative.
But above all, our investment in a renewed vegetation management program has improved our interaction with members. Our former approach didn’t always realistically allow an opportunity to reach our members in advance to provide a personal explanation about the type or extent of trimming work that was to be performed. Members just knew their cooperative (or rather, a contractor) was coming in to address a problem, or was working in the area. This program has allowed us to better align vegetation management with our member-centric focus, and our commitment to inform members about every aspect of their cooperative’s service delivery.
ACRT’s certified arborists are now conducting most member communications and notifications relating to vegetation management projects on behalf of United. Well trained on the details and benefits of each project, as well as interpersonal communication, these arborists are now helping our members understand not just when trimming and removals are required, but also why. That’s critical for homeowners who value the trees on their properties and in their neighborhoods. By making them a part of the decision-making and process, homeowners are better informed and prepared. As a result of this member-facing strategy, our members have even more ownership in the process and the results, which often leads to their advocacy of the program going forward
All of this data is also being captured in our vegetation management software. This allows us to easily verify information relating to both our system vegetation and membership. Detailed logs and corresponding data are kept of each vegetation project along with each member interaction. Arborists and contractors now have access to the information they need—when and where they need it. The data not only paints a picture of our system, but also provides us direction for future decision-making.
A Foundation for the Future
Our new, proactive vegetation management program is still in its early stages, but it has already accomplished great things for both our organization and our membership. Thanks to our new approach, not only are we tackling tree-related challenges in a methodical, data-driven manner, but we’re also ensuring our members understand why we’re doing it. Overall, the new methods we’re employing today help demonstrate the ideal that the cooperative and its member-owners can accomplish anything when they do it together.
That’s why we’re making every effort to communicate with our members. Town hall meetings, publications, social media, and boots-on-the-ground, one-on-one meetings are just some of the avenues we’re using to connect with those who rely on us. Our goal is to ensure members have every opportunity to learn and engage with United on vegetation management and, in turn, share that knowledge with their family and friends in our service area.
Looking ahead, we’ll be continually exploring and investing in new areas of vegetation management that will further help reduce costs and improve service reliability to members. In doing so, we’ll be enhancing our storm response planning to protect our members and their power supply. We’ll be monitoring ROI on our efforts to ensure that benefits and returns are always outpacing challenges and costs. We’ll be monitoring the new technologies and government regulations that impact our industry—and specifically those affecting the state of Texas and its unique energy position in the nation.
And above all, we’ll be doing everything we can to ensure our members—who are the reason we do what we do—continue to enjoy safe, reliable power for years to come.