As in other areas of the United States, North Carolina’s weather patterns in recent years have been outside what is considered normal and have tested electrical systems. For North Carolina-based Union Power Cooperative, the unprecedented amount of rain in the Southeast in 2013 and into 2014 has had a direct, negative impact on the amount of regrowth experienced along its rights-of-way. Much of the vegetation trimmed in 2012 has grown back to 2012 pre-trim distances; some areas have experienced 12 ft to 15 ft (3.6 m to 4.6 m) of regrowth.

In such cases, it can be difficult to decide exactly how to proceed. Should the utility move forward with the new set of trimming as scheduled or look back to what has been completed but is now at a stage that could create problems?

To help with making decisions like this, Union Power adopted a new tool less than a year ago that provides the data intelligence needed to manage its vegetation management program more effectively.

Union Power Cooperative, UVM application software

Challenge Becomes Opportunity

Vegetation management along the rights-of-way — including maintenance of vegetation outside of the rights-of-way to prevent it from making contact or falling onto transmission and distribution electrical lines and equipment — is, by its very nature, a complex adaptive process. Managers tasked with keeping electrical systems intact and in good working order are constantly juggling a myriad of internal and external conditions that directly impact reliability.

Like most vegetation managers at cooperatives across the country, Union Power is faced with a variety of factors that affect its operations. Examples of internal conditions include budgetary mandates, safety numbers and management-imposed goals such as improvements to the reliability indicators of the system average interruption duration index (SAIDI), system average interruption frequency index (SAIFI) and customer average interruption duration index (CAIDI).

In the realm of external conditions, examples include weather patterns, inherent challenges in demographics, regional affluent zones, governmental and state mandates, availability of vendors with established workforces and regional access limitations. The old adage of doing more with less — whether in the form of funds, time or resources — is a real challenge in this line of work.

For Union Power, this especially has rung true, but the cooperative identified the challenge as an opportunity. Until recently, its utility vegetation management (UVM) team relied on available data as effectively as they could but still encountered trials with managing vegetation. However, with the help of a new tool, the cooperative is turning that juggling act into a more balanced responsibility.