Why utilities need advanced weather analytics for vegetation management, now more than ever

By | 5 minute read | October 22, 2020

Maintaining vegetation is one of the leading challenges for utility companies. Trees and branches can cause power lines to fall – leading to service interruptions and potential wildfires. According to the Federal Energy Commission, vegetation is the leading driver in power outages. Although not all power outages are weather-related, 92 percent of all these outages can trace their origins to vegetation management, making it vital for companies to have a strategic plan in place.

These plans are necessary, because short circuits can occur when powerlines and trees come into contact with each other – leading to major blackouts. For example, in August 2003, trees caused the largest blackout in North American history when they collided with a powerline in Ohio. This affected 50 million people, and had an estimated cost of six billion dollars.

According to Geospatial World, one quarter to one-half of all outages are ascribed to vegetation in some regions. It can be costly for utilities to identify these areas of high-risk vegetation encroachment due to how manual the process can be. According to Power Grid, the average cost to manage vegetation on the lines using mechanical methods is $143 per acre. This can add up to millions over the course of a few years.

Utilities are also under scrutiny for their role in spreading wildfires. According to the Los Angeles Times, equipment owned by California’s three largest utilities ignited more than 2,000 fires between 2014 and 2017. According to the CPUC, 10 percent of California’s wildfires were the result of “utility ignitions”. These ignitions were primarily caused by vegetation coming into contact with power lines. Utility companies are facing increasing amounts of stress to more effectively manage vegetation to prevent both power outages and forest fires.

How is Vegetation Managed?

So, how is vegetation managed? Traditional approaches to this challenge have involved time-consuming, costly on-site inspections. This also includes keeping track of when the area was last trimmed in detail. These utilities companies relied primarily on human observation and drone imaging to stay ahead, however neither can effectively reach every square inch of grid.

Now, in order to address this challenge more proactively, utility companies are moving towards multi-band satellite and aerial imagery – combined with analytics and AI – to determine the proximity of vegetation to utility assets. AI-based visual recognition technology helps to analyze satellite imagery, while determining the height, width and wetness of vegetation.

It can also be used to determine how close vegetation is to any equipment. This allows utilities to judge the risk of a fire and  power outages. By receiving this data in short increments, companies have the ability to prevent trouble by enacting operational safeguards and alerting incident management teams, customers and, if necessary, emergency response units.

How will advanced analytics transform vegetation management and the utility industry in 2021?

By implementing advanced analytics and AI, utility companies are beginning to gain the comprehensive insight they need to satisfy customers and regulators. This will also help them better manage their equipment, preserve assets, and handle the whims of nature.

To help your team navigate these trends, IBM asked top energy influencers about the impact of AI and advanced analytics on the utility industry. Here’s what they said. 

High Resolution Satellite Imagery – Kevin O’Donovan, Energy Influencer

“For decades, the concept of a Utility being able to get ‘pictures’ of their entire network in order to access the state of the vegetation at every part of its network was seen as a bit of a pipe dream. People would say, “… even if we could get the images economically, we don’t have time to look at them all … it’s a great idea but never going to happen …”.

It’s now economically viable to get high resolution satellite imagery, add in data from drones, lidar, GIS etc, and not just from one point in time, but over a time-line. Let S/W look at the images and it have it ‘tell you’ where you may or may not have a problem. Have the S/W predict where you will have a problem in a few weeks or months given the forecasted weather & climate model for the coming months.

Advanced analytics are transforming how Utilities approach their entire vegetation management strategy and operations. The cost savings, the reduction of risk, the ability to plan and proactively inform your customers & stakeholders of what you are doing to actively improve your grid resiliency. It really is a great idea AND it is happening today.”

Improved Cost Position – Dr. Thomas Hillig, TH Energy

“Vegetation management is a key cost factor for utilities all over the world. Data-driven solutions will definitely gain importance as they will improve the cost position and also increase the quality of prediction.

Key will be to pull data together intelligently from different sources. Utilities might be interested in specific actions and not only in predictions. Some utilities are still skeptical, it might make sense to show them a forecast including action proposals and how these compare to what they would have done anyhow. References will also be very helpful to demonstrate the reliability of new data driven vegetation management approaches.

Proactively Prioritize and Execute – Robbie Berglund, The Weather Company, an IBM Business

“Vegetation management has always been a critical function for utilities. It is, however, increasingly top of mind with company executives looking to mitigate the escalating costs and risks posed by vegetation. Due to economic and logistical challenges, utilities often have limited insight into their actual state of vegetation leading to significant inefficiencies in the vegetation management process.

IBM is leading a new data-driven approach to understanding the state of vegetation, that is cost-effective and scales across a utilities entire service territory. Leveraging multi-band satellite and aerial imagery combined with hyper-spectral analytics and AI techniques to assess the proximity of vegetation to assets. This allows Utilities to proactively plan for preventive maintenance and rapid response.

The IBM Vegetation Management solution helps provide robust vegetation insights that support data-driven decision making from planning, bidding and contracting, to work inspection and auditing. This innovative solution can help monitor the vegetation across hundreds of miles of transmission and distribution lines, identify risk areas and more proactively prioritize and execute vegetation-related actions.”

For more information on IBM’s role in transforming vegetation management, take a look at this video, featuring IBM Expert Bryan Sacks:

Final Thoughts

The energy industry will always have to overcome the challenges vegetation holds to ensure safety for consumers. Advanced analytics and artificial intelligence are helping to ease this process.

We would like to give a big thanks to Kevin O’Donovan, Dr. Thomas Hillig, and Robbie Berglund—who provided their unique perspectives on the energy industry, as well as key insights into how advanced analytics is transforming vegetation management.

How do you think advanced analytics and AI are transforming vegetation management? We would love to hear your perspective on the ever-evolving energy and utilities’ industry. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to stay up to date on the latest in energy.

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