Utilities invest in UVM for many key reasons. For example, they trim and remove vegetation to prevent wildfires and outages. In addition, the law requires utilities to take certain measures to ensure the safe and reliable delivery of utility services. This includes mandatory or required vegetation management to avoid violation of such laws and regulations and to minimize legal risks.
As anyone involved in UVM can attest, however, the industry’s laws, regulations, ordinances, rules and practices vary significantly. What may be true on one side of an invisible line may differ from what is true on the other side of that line. The laws and regulations pertaining to this practice can conflict with one another and are often unclear. Importantly, certain violations carry along with them not only fines and penalties, but also potential criminal violation as well.
When UVM is not performed as needed, disaster is not far behind. For example, many of the most damaging wildfires have resulted from tree and power line conflicts in not only California and the West, but also in Texas, Georgia and Florida. The 2003 Northeast Blackout also resulted from this same issue.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Energy has estimated a total of $100 billion or more in annual lost business productivity alone from power outages. This doesn’t include damages, insurance, tax revenue, household losses or other losses due to power outages caused by tree and power line conflicts – the primary cause of as much as 70-80% of all outages.
Tragic loss of life and severe injury is also directly attributable to the failure to maintain vegetation away from utilities’ infrastructure. On average, one arborist or line worker dies in this country each week because of utility line clearance or related work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, hundreds of deaths — many of them children — result each year from tree climbing too close to utility power lines.
Mission, Vision and Values
For years, government, industry and advocacy groups have sought guidance on addressing these challenges. Tulane University Law School, through the Utility Vegetation Management Initiative (UVMI), has now answered this call.
In 2020, the law school created UVMI with the mission to serve as a center for the understanding, development and improvement of law, policy and practice of UVM. The goal of the program is to promote the creation of safe and environmentally sound co-existence among people, infrastructure and the natural environment while also ensuring safe and reliable delivery of energy and other utility services.
The UVMI’s vision is to earn its role as the unquestioned center for excellence in every aspect of law, policy, and impacting the intersection between utilities and the environment by studying, educating and advocating the fair, well-reasoned and science-based understanding of global, national and local factors influencing proper decision-making in all aspects of UVM. In doing so, it aims to aid and assist government, courts, industry, NGOs and the public-at-large.
The UVMI’s core values serve to focus all decisions and actions, and no decision or action is taken without reference to these core values:
- Intellectual honesty. All positions taken shall be supported by intellectually honest, fair, well-reasoned and science-based information developed by unbiased research free from undue influence aimed at any particular result.
- Security. People and the natural world have the right to safe and peaceful co-existence that includes reliable delivery of utility services (including energy and the infrastructure that supports it) without endangering human life, property or the environment.
- Dignity, Fairness and Compassion. The highest purpose of public policy, and the laws, regulations, ordinances and rules that flow from such public policy, is the establishment of fair and proportionate plans for the allocation of risk and expense in society without the undue sacrifice of community values, and for the provision of compassionate, fair and dignified justice to resolve inequities.
- Tireless Dedication to Purpose. A continually urgent moral imperative exists to prevent conflicts between utility (including energy) delivery systems and vegetation to avoid tragic losses of life, property, infrastructure and the natural environment, and the key to enduring successful prevention is the wise adherence to core values.
Making a Difference
To further its mission and vision, the UVMI has engaged in several projects to expand knowledge and serve as a valuable resource. For example, the students have taken on research projects and have prepared papers for publication. Other projects include:
Compendium of UVM Laws. The UVMI is compiling all the laws, regulations and ordinances relating to UVM. It has completed an initial North American survey, which is now being compiled and updated. For the first survey, it involved Mexico, Canada and the United States, but it is looking to add more countries to this compendium.
Third Party Verification of Remote Sensing Technology. The UVMI conducted an independent, unbiased pilot field study on the use of satellite technology to determine the effectiveness of satellite technology in improving data accuracy and decision-making for UVM. The results of this pilot, proof-of-principle field study are presented in a report that is now ready for publication.
In the study, the UVMI identified a test plot within the southeastern United States covering about 70 square miles and containing 54.3 line miles of distribution line made up of 1076 spans. AiDash, Inc. provided analysis as to the threat level at each span, as well as a factor relating to efficient work.
This predictive analysis was turned over to a team of arborists from Plank Road Forestry, who were tasked with determining the accuracy of the predictive analysis and, when the prediction was correct, to determine whether it would have been discovered during a standard inspection.
The findings on the pilot study with respect to many of the most critical factors was that the predictive analysis was accurate more than 95% of the time. More importantly, though, in 55 cases, a standard Level 1 inspection would not have revealed the existence of the tree and power line conflict, and in one of those cases, even a Level 3 inspection would not have revealed the conflict. This meant that the satellite technology was able to find a potential power outage, wildfire or electrocution risk that would not have been found with a standard inspection about once every mile of distribution line.
Model Municipal Tree Ordinance. The UVMI is working together with the Arbor Day Foundation to attempt to develop a model municipal tree ordinance that will promote the planting and protection of public trees and encourage tree planting while simultaneously meeting the needs of utilities to trim and/or remove incompatible trees (or find engineering solutions) to avoid tree and power line conflicts.
California Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety Scoping Meeting. California’s newly formed Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety had a public scoping meeting in early 2023 to initiate a discussion to organize all the state’s electric utilities in a unified effort to combat California’s wildfire risk. The UVMI was invited to help lead the scoping meeting and to serve as a resource for the state and the utilities.
Through research, education and outreach, the UVMI is striving to identify challenges and help utilities and stakeholders to proactively work toward a brighter future for the UVM industry.
Lawrence J. Kahn, Esq.( [email protected]) is the director of the Tulane University Law School Utility Vegetation Management Initiative.