The year 2010 was a strange one for vegetation management. Most utilities started off the year conservatively due to signs of a struggling economy, flat or declining budgets, and much uncertainty about those budgets remaining intact for the entire year.
Again, like most years, the weather played a major role. We in the vegetation management arena keep a close eye on weather patterns. Fortunately, there were few major storms throughout the United States in 2010. Most were isolated in nature, not widespread. And with many states experiencing a colder-than-normal winter and warmer-than-normal summer, revenues for the most part were strong. By late summer, the signs of this were evident; many utilities were working extended hours and asking for additional resources from contract tree companies. This proved to be a big challenge, as the demand was so widespread. With very few exceptions, all areas of the United States were looking for additional resources. It is not uncommon for this to happen; however, it tends to be more regional. Any utilities that were having budget challenges had no problem farming out tree crews to neighboring utilities. Some crews traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles, relocating on a temporary basis to remain employed. Now, halfway through 2011, we are seeing some signs of recovery, yet nearly all vegetation budgets went back to or below 2010 levels.
Some of the trends that the Utility Arborist Association (UAA) and its members have seen over the past several years are already and will continue to be on the front burner in 2011. Mandatory cycles or clearances are already a part of daily life for some utilities and will be for others sooner rather than later. We have seen signs of activity in several states' regulatory groups giving us the impression that they are considering it or have a plan to introduce it soon. What does this mean for utilities not already exposed to mandatory pruning cycles or clearances? If you have a solid program and are on a cycle, it may mean better communication with your customers through additional foresters or contract foresters and potential increased cost. If you are not on a regular cycle or do not have a solid plan in place, then get ready to increase your vegetation budget dramatically.
The UAA is working on updating a study on the cost of deferring maintenance (the last study is more than 10 years old) to get a better big picture. The information we have now tells us that if a utility's cycle is more than the typical two to three years, the cost per tree or mile to reclaim that cycle length will be an additional 20% to 25% per year you defer maintenance. So, if you are required to decrease cycle length or maintain minimum clearances, it is going to be expensive work and more work. The positive side is when cycles are maintained, costs will be reduced and utilities will be able to maintain those costs for future cycles — as long as a tree-removal program is enforced.
Another trend on the front burner is the enforcement of easements on both transmission and distribution systems. This is due to recent rulings requiring permission or an easement to perform pruning. That's a requirement for maintenance pruning, not tree removal. In some cases, communities and homeowners associations have been successful in getting utilities to stop or adjust specifications by using the media or public support. If this trend gains momentum in other communities or states, it could set vegetation management back 20 years. Utilities will need to ask individual homeowners permission to prune a tree away from a conductor, as opposed to giving notification as a courtesy to homeowners when vegetation management work is being done on their property. Some of this has come from the impact deferred tree trimming has when the right-of-way is reclaimed. Several utilities have altered trimming in communities and cities until they can work through the legal appeal process to regain rights to prune trees as a part of their regularly scheduled maintenance.
As you can see, it is not a simple process to just go out and prune trees away from power lines anymore. Every part of your business has a role and all of those parts must work as a team to maintain a successful vegetation management program that improves safety and reliability on your system. So buckle up for the wild ride of 2011 that's already begun.