Utilities have one goal: to provide communities with safe and reliable power. But the ways to accomplish this goal are continuously changing. Whether it’s technological advancement, regulatory changes or broader societal trends, our industry changes every day.
Utility vegetation management (UVM) plays an important role in how utilities improve service to customers. And it is the responsibility of UVM professionals to deploy the most effective techniques to responsibly control vegetation that can threaten electrical facilities all over the country. That means we need to be constantly asking ourselves these questions: Where do we stand today? What are some of the biggest challenges our industry faces moving forward? Where are our biggest opportunities? How can we work to do our jobs better now and into the future?
Recently, leading UVM experts shared how they envision the future of UVM. These experts included utility vegetation managers from utilities large and small, across diverse areas throughout the U.S. Their answers illuminated some hurdles, opportunities and strategies to improve our commitment to the communities we serve.
Labor — A Tough Challenge
A common theme that has reverberated through numerous industries for the past several years, and seems likely to become more severe, is a general lack of skilled labor and difficulty finding and retaining employees. "I think it’s going to be staffing," says George Leader, vegetation manager for Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC), the country’s largest electrical co-op based in Johnson City, Texas. "Finding people who know what they’re doing is an ongoing concern."
Chad Locke, vegetation manager for Talquin Electric Cooperative in Florida, echoes the same sentiment. "I think the biggest challenge vegetation managers are facing is hiring qualified workers to replace seasoned employees who are retiring."
Indeed, Leader’s and Locke’s comments reflect a broader challenge. Businesses around the country report an inability to find new talent, a problem that will be exacerbated by the ongoing retirement of baby boomers.
Matt Goff, Georgia Power Co.’s vegetation manager, relays similar concerns, adding that new areas of expertise will be required as technology continues to change. "Growing crews is not easy these days, but the demand for labor is also an issue for utilities. As our industry adopts more technology, as we become more aware of what we don’t know, we will be expected, and perhaps, required, to act upon what the data tells us," Goff says. "But who is going to manage that data for utilities? Are the utility arborists going to add more job duties to their plates or forego other duties? Data acquisition is easier than analyzation. As technology continues to encourage us to pursue efficiencies, we need to advocate for the training of the future workforce, which will make it possible to act upon the intelligence provided by data."
Wes Davis, a retired vegetation management expert with 40 years of experience, cites special licenses and certifications tree workers are required to obtain as a hurdle. "This work requires specialized skills," Davis says. "There are commercial driver’s licenses, pesticide applicator licenses, arborist certifications and other required licenses based on state regulations. When you factor all of that in, a true qualified tree worker is getting harder to find. The bottom line is that fewer people are pursuing tree work as a career."
Beyond the labor shortage, experts generally agree that continuous regulatory pressure and public perception of UVM will be challenges in the future, just as they are today. Jeff Carney, program manager for vegetation and inspections at Liberty Utilities, says, "Our regulators generally do not understand the vegetation management side of our business, despite our best efforts to educate them."
PEC’s Leader agrees. "Regulations can be one of the biggest challenges we face at a given time," he says. "These changes can make it difficult to get work done that needs to be done. Meanwhile, we have an ongoing responsibility to educate the public about the importance of our work. Many of our customers simply don’t understand the dangers of having trees growing around electric lines. They don’t see it from a safety perspective."
Opportunities with Consumer Communication
But where there is challenge, there is also opportunity. Our responders agree that while public perception of UVM is not always rosy, we can be proactive in our communities to spread the word about the positive impact our operations can have from a sustainability and environmental perspective.
“Member education and communication — there’s a real opportunity to turn a traditionally negative issue into a positive experience for everyone through enhanced communication and education,” says Quentin Howard, senior vice president of system engineering for United Cooperative Services. “Landowner acceptance will always be a challenge that must be addressed proactively. For instance, partnerships with various agencies to help facilitate improvement of pollinator habitats is a story of which we should be taking advantage. It’s a story our industry should be working tirelessly to tell again and again.”
Talley Floyd, vegetation management supervisor for the Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. (MTEMC) agrees, noting that the message of integrated vegetation management (IVM) resonates with customers, but it needs to be more widely communicated. “Many utilities do a great job at being good stewards of the environment while obtaining proper clearances through natural lateral pruning and other IVM methods,” Floyd says. “However, those same utilities don’t always clearly communicate this positive message to their customers and their communities. It’s a great opportunity, and sometimes it seems like we’re missing it.”
How do we communicate that message? Talquin’s Locke says utilities can better harness the power of social media to their advantage. “Electric utilities can utilize this tool to get our message across to members and customers, as to the importance of maintaining our power grid,” he says.
Elsewhere, new technologies continue to show burgeoning promise. “For me, that’s our greatest opportunity,” Georgia’s Goff says, citing advances in analytics and data tracking. “In vegetation management, we’re closer than ever to establishing a correlation between dollars spent on vegetation management and impacts to other metrics that utilities track. Knowing where to spend that dollar will be crucial if vegetation management program managers wish to maximize results under any financial scenario.”
Davis also notes that technological improvements are allowing tree workers to become more efficient in a variety of ways. “Technology is providing many opportunities, such as linking timesheets required for invoicing with contractor payroll systems,” Davis says. “This information can be collected in a single file and conveniently transferred to the appropriate databases. The same applications can link utility pole locations with current work sites, improving audits and work tracking functions.”
Impact of New Technologies
Technological evolution impacts all industries and the UVM industry is no different. Drone and analytic technologies have some of the greatest potential to make big impacts. Utilities have already developed some solid applications for unmanned aerial systems, but their use is now starting to grow for UVM pursuits. But the truth is, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible with available technological innovations.
Leader says PEC has trained six of its vegetation team members as qualified unmanned aerial system pilots for the eight drones the company deploys. "Our drone program is in its very early stages, but we’re running some testing in different projects," he says. "We’ve seen and heard how unmanned aerial systems can be very useful for looking at trees and being able to identify species with LiDAR, whether they’re fast growing, slow growing, medium growing."
Liberty’s Carney concurs. "I believe the greatest opportunity is to continue to push the envelope with the rapid pace of very well-thought-out computer technologies and other technologies such as drones," he says. "But as excited as I am about those developments, I’m just as excited about some of the emerging knowledge that is being provided through research projects such as those sponsored by the TREE Fund."
Meanwhile, Davis adds that the value of UVM and IVM is being noticed more and more. "Senior management teams in most investor-owned utilities are seeing the benefits of professionally managed programs in terms of customer satisfaction and improved long-term reliability gains," he says. "Professional utility arborists are the key to a successful vegetation management program, as they have the credibility necessary to champion the line clearance programs with landowners and regulators."
Staying True to Our Roots
Drones, data and other new technologies can have a meaningful impact on our industry, but these trends are far from a complete solution for better service and safety. "The influence of technology can be a double-edged sword if we aren’t mindful of the flip side of data acquisition," Goff says. "What do we do with all that information? If you’re not prepared to process data, it can have a negative impact on the perceived efficacy of the technology. One step forward, two steps back."
Alternatively, some worry that outside forces could negatively impact the good work we’re doing. "The cost of electric generation going up and trickling down to the utility can affect budgets, and that can affect vegetation maintenance," Talquin’s Locke says. "Our political climate can have an impact, with different elected officials having varying opinions on what works and what doesn’t. And in my opinion, the decisions made at that level rarely benefit the end consumer."
MTEMC’s Floyd agrees. "There is continued pressure from outside forces who don’t understand the vegetation management industry well and believe our industry is harming the environment, for instance," he says. "This is another reason why utilities must proactively educate those forces on how we’re working in harmony with the environment, while maintaining a reliable electrical system at the same time."
Davis drives home the point that overcoming labor challenges is the key to ongoing success. "Once a line clearance program is established, management at some utilities attempts to reduce arborist staff or the necessary educational backgrounds for new hires to reduce operating expenses," he says. "This is a very shortsighted approach. The strength of a successful program rests with the arborists overseeing daily operations."
In the face of technological upheaval and opportunity, there is simply no substitute for good people, good communication and an ongoing commitment to safely doing good work. It’s true, the UVM industry is changing in several ways. But as we look forward, we must continue to stay true to our roots; it’s how we will remain successful. ♦
Joe Marshall, the business development manager for ACRT, oversees the business development efforts in the Southeast region of the United States. Having served a total of 16 years at ACRT, in roles ranging from manager of sales and marketing to senior operations manager, Marshall now is a liaison to clients, helping to assess and meet customer needs.