Executive Insight, Outage Management, Transmission

How proactive vegetation management also improved customer communications: one utility’s story

In April of 2000, Johnson County Electric Cooperative and Erath County Electric Cooperative consolidated to establish United Cooperative Services (United). As one of the largest electric distribution cooperatives in Texas today, United provides power via more than 11,000 miles of energized line to 85,000 meters across 14 counties.

More than 60,000 residential and commercial members rely on us for safe, reliable power, and one of the biggest influences on service reliability is something our members might not be aware of: vegetation management. Proper vegetation management, however, ensures homes and businesses remain powered without interruption from outages caused by trees touching or falling on lines. We work to identify hazard trees and other vegetation that pose risks to power distribution and address them scientifically and methodically.

A proactive approach to vegetation management

United has always paid close attention to the vegetation present on our system and how it impacts electric delivery. We addressed trouble areas — internally referred to as “hotspots” — whenever and wherever they arose. When trimming or other vegetation management projects were scheduled for certain areas, we communicated closely with those members who would be affected by it so they knew what to expect.

But when we engaged a third-party vegetation management company, ACRT, to conduct an assessment of our system through Arborcision — its proprietary analysis tool — it became apparent we weren’t approaching vegetation management as strategically as we could. The assessment revealed some valuable information, such as where our most historically troublesome areas were, as well as the makeup of the vegetation on our system and its growth patterns. More importantly, it showed us that our approach was more reactive rather than proactive — putting reliable distribution at risk and leading to higher vegetation management costs.

In 2017, United decided to reevaluate its vegetation management program. ACRT, acting as our consulting partner, assisted in developing a strategy to target areas with our vegetation trouble spots and make systematic and scientific changes. Where tree contractors had previously trimmed vegetation to address immediate concerns, calculated pruning techniques are now used to prevent vegetation from growing back as quickly. This keeps lines safe and clear for longer periods, which not only improves reliable service to our members, but also reduces costs over the long-term by requiring less frequent trimming cycles.

Internal reorganization for workload management and improved customer communications

Internally, we have also revised our approach to working with contractors. With highly trained ACRT arborists now sharing the responsibility of managing contractors along with United personnel, workloads are better organized and prioritized based on the most important tasks. Quality control has also improved in the form of audits conducted after vegetation work is completed. These audits ensure that all work was performed correctly. In the event that something was missed, the work is resubmitted to the contractor to correct at no additional cost to the cooperative.

Our investment in a renewed vegetation management program has also improved our interaction with members. Our former approach didn’t always realistically allow an opportunity to reach our members in advance to provide a personal explanation about the type or extent of trimming work that was to be performed. Members just knew their cooperative (or rather, a contractor) was coming in to address a problem or was working in the area. This program has allowed us to better align vegetation management with our member-centric focus, and our commitment to inform members about their cooperative’s service delivery.

ACRT’s arborists are now conducting most member communications on vegetation management projects on behalf of United. Trained on the details and benefits of each project, these arborists are now helping our members understand when and why trimming and removals are required. That’s critical for homeowners who value the trees on their properties and in their neighborhoods. By making them part of the decision-making and process, homeowners are better informed and prepared. As a result of this member-facing strategy, our members have even more ownership in the process and the results, which often leads to their advocacy of the program going forward.

All this data is also being captured in our vegetation management software. This allows us to easily verify information relating to both our system vegetation and membership. Detailed logs and corresponding data are kept of each vegetation project along with each member interaction. Arborists and contractors now have access to the information they need — when and where they need it. The data paints a picture of our system and gives us direction for future decision-making.

A foundation for the future

United’s new, proactive vegetation management program is still in its early stages, but thanks to this new approach, not only are we tackling tree-related challenges in a methodical, data-driven manner, but we’re also ensuring our members understand why we’re doing it. Overall, the new methods we’re employing today help demonstrate the ideal that the cooperative and its member-owners can accomplish anything when they do it together. 

We are employing town hall meetings, publications, social media, and one-on-one meetings to connect with our members. Our goal is to ensure they have every opportunity to learn and engage with United on vegetation management and share that knowledge with their family and friends in our service area.

Looking ahead, we’ll continue to explore and invest in new areas of vegetation management that will further help reduce costs and improve service reliability to members. We plan to enhance our storm response planning to protect our members and their power supply. We’ll be examining the return on investment on our efforts to ensure that benefits and returns are always outpacing challenges and costs. We’ll be looking into the new technologies and government regulations that impact the industry — specifically those affecting the state of Texas and its unique energy position in the nation.