FKEC tree crews trim trees in Key Largo, Florida, to maintain line clearance as part of the co-op's year-round work implementing a comprehensive vegetation management program to prevent outages caused by vegetation.

Utility Vegetation Management in the Florida Keys

May 16, 2024
Florida Keys Electric Cooperative connects with the local community on vegetation management.

Responsible for bringing power from mainland Florida to the Keys, Florida Keys Electric Cooperative (FKEC) serves about 33,000 accounts from the Monroe County line to the beginning of the Seven Mile Bridge. The system only runs about 700 miles and serves a very small, tight-knit community.

Throughout the last few decades, the goal of FKEC has never changed. The cooperative has always sought to educate its community, city and planners. Many people don’t take power lines into consideration when they are planning landscaping projects, but the cooperative helps them design landscaping with power lines in mind and help them choose foliage that will be able to last without crowding power lines or becoming dangerous during storms.

Educating the Community

Over the years, public outreach has been a big part of FKEC’s system. Not only does the cooperative send out a membership-wide monthly newsletter, but it also sends an outreach forester out to Upper and Middle Florida Keys elementary schools on Florida’s Arbor Day to pass out seeds and discuss native plants. FKEC also offers a native tree giveaway every October. Since 2010, the cooperative has been recognized as part of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Line USA program. The cooperative provides 
education on the best kind of native plants to have in yards, how to identify native plants and when to call a utility vegetation management specialist.

Part of this education consists of the lateral movement of coconut trees during storms and heavy winds. Floridians love their palm trees; however, they don’t realize that Washingtonia Palms can grow 3 ft to 4 ft a year, and for every 5 ft of trunk, there is 1 ft of movement, meaning these trees move a great deal during storms and high winds.

While FKEC strives to communicate fully with its customers and serve them to the best of its ability, all while trying to be as cost-effective as possible, the cooperative has run into some problems. For example, cataloging every palm tree in the system located 10 ft or less from a power line is complex and time-consuming. This process involves catching all the problem trees and tagging them, writing a letter to notify the community member of plans to remove the tree and coordinating with them to either cut it down or move it. Once FKEC takes the tree down, palms generally don’t chip well, leading to a cost of $300 to $600 per load just to dispose of the tree properly, raising costs dramatically.

Forging a Partnership

FKEC started with one crew consisting of three men and a chipper. This system was extremely difficult to get on a cycle, and the crew was constantly jumping around and putting out fires. With the change in management, FKEC was able to shift to a super crew system — consisting of three crews, each with a chipper and a bucket. By the end of year one, it had decreased calls by 60%, and while the pricing strategy time and equipment/time and materials (T&E/M) system got FKEC through the first few years, the team members were quickly becoming disillusioned with the system.

FKEC was working with its previous partner for 10 years on a T&E/M project and spending $10,000 to $11,000 per mile. With no dormant season in the Florida Keys and year-round utility vegetation management and tree pruning, the cooperative needed a better solution than the T&E/M projects. For two years, FKEC worked to move to a unit-based pruning solution and finally received the budget and green light after gaining approval from the Board of Directors.

After reviewing options, the cooperative decided on ACRT’s software. FKEC can now implement a unit-based contract, which is saving time and money on surveying and creating work orders. In the past, the vegetation manager had to figure out what needed to be done, survey for hotspots and create orders for the in-house crew. Now, it’s possible to focus on the overall picture while ACRT handles contractors. This gives the crews the opportunity to focus on educating community members about the dangers tall trees can pose when a storm hits.

ACRT designed a new VM program for FKEC, updated its line clearance and handled all the bids, allowing the vegetation manager to focus on talking to homeowners about what is going on with their foliage. They want to be involved and informed as to what is happening with their property. Having these conversations without having to worry about finding contractors opens the door to better communication about what needs to be done and why. That way, the homeowner is content and the crews can get the job done.

Because the software is easy-to-use and user-friendly, it allows the team members to gather the necessary data and information quickly. If they run into issues, the vendor’s team is available to provide assistance.

The Future of Florida Keys Electric Cooperative

With climate change progressing and the heat index continuing to climb, FKEC is faced with the challenge of figuring out how to keep employees safe while continuing to get the job done. Many UVM companies are facing the same issues with severe weather putting a strain on power lines and field workers. The cooperative’s current plan is to pull crews in early in the afternoon to avoid them being out during the hottest parts of the day. Since FKEC does not see this changing, it will continue to make strides toward safety, and turn to ACRT to see what their safety practices entail.

The Florida Keys power grid has also faced some strain thanks to the influx of people that occurred after the COVID-19 pandemic. New people are moving to the Florida Keys due to its tropical climate, however, a lot of these new owners and customers do not understand the necessity of tree pruning and UVM. This is where the need for education comes into play. Partnering with ACRT allows FKEC to focus heavily on educating these new clients about the importance of native trees and UVM.

FKEC’s top priorities are making sure customers are educated and doing everything it can to keep the community safe. Most people don’t think about how pruning trees can help prevent fallen power lines during storms or how a tree 10 ft from a line can cause damage. The cooperative’s job is to provide them with the information they need, and the services that keep their homes and businesses running. 

Jason Richards has been with the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative for 32 years. He started as a tree trimmer in 1991 and went on to work in multiple positions, including tree crew leader, journeyman substation electrician and in system operations before overseeing FKEC’s vegetation management in 2004. He is also a certified arborist from the International Society of Arboriculture.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!