CASE STUDY: North Carolina Co-op Saves Using SaaS for Vegetation Management

Efficiency savings dividends (ESD) are the new ROI-stratified, complex and yet easy to track
Efficiency savings dividends (ESD) are the new ROI-stratified, complex and yet easy to track. In this example, prioritized workloads are visualized to see the mitigated costs utilities can save from future expense. Arborcision is a complex adaptive system that doesn’t rely on a utility’s typical past data and snapshots to manage its system. Circuit BBC, if work is planned first, will provide $287,107 in ESD or cost savings from a utility’s budget.

by Wil Ortiz, Union Power Cooperative

For electrical systems and providers across the United States, unforeseen weather patterns can cause detrimental effects.

A few common examples come to mind, such as lightning and wind that can take down power lines, but heavy, sustained periods of rainfall can affect vegetation management program in ways that aren’t as obvious as a lightning bolt.

Union Power Cooperative, based in Monroe, N.C., maintains nearly 6,000 total line miles through Union, Stanly, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Rowan counties.

As one of the fastest-growing co-ops in North Carolina with 120 employees and 23 substations, Union Power Cooperative must focus much attention on vegetation management.

When an unprecedented amount of rain fell across the Southeast in 2013 and into 2014, it had a powerful, direct impact on regrowth.

Vegetation we’d trimmed back in 2012 had grown to be more problematic than was expected that year; we saw 12 to 15 feet of regrowth in many areas.

right of way

What Now?

A careful and deliberate strategy is required to face this sort of challenge. Even under ideal circumstances, a vegetation management strategy is a complex, adaptive process.

Managers responsible for tackling vegetation management also are juggling plenty of other internal and external conditions that directly affect reliability.

And now more than ever, power providers are tasked with doing more with less.

Budgetary mandates, safety numbers and management-imposed goals make up some internal conditions, and external ones include demographic challenges, regional affluent zones, governmental and state mandates, availability of vendors and established work forces, and regional access limitations-not to mention the weather.

aborcision
aborcision

A Powerful Tool

For many vegetation management challenges Union Power faces across its operations, we rely heavily on available data to decide upon actionable measures.

For those challenges posed by the season’s heavy rainfall and the vegetation overgrowth, we used a tool we had adopted close to a year prior: ACRT’s Arborcision software.

Developed by Arbor Intelligence founder and CEO Richard Jackson and offered exclusively through ACRT, Arborcision is a Software as a Service (SaaS) that helps organize utility vegetation management (UVM) data to provide valuable intelligence and drive more effective utility decision-making.

The software corrals targeted, utility-specific data to delineate courses of action for improvement through an approachable interface.

The SaaS incorporates comparisons against other utilities of similar composition, referred to as cohorts, which form groups by common traits of the landscape of each member.

With circuit samplings and sophisticated algorithms, the software gives us insights into how its vegetation management program compares with those of others.

It can project where the cooperative is headed and how processes can be improved.

For example, Union Power currently ranks in the 33 percent range among comparable power operators, according to recent data from Arborcision.

That range indicates that our cooperative is performing at about the industry average but is steadily improving toward greater reliability.

The program notes Union Power’s energy savings dividend, or ESD, which helps determine potential improvements that can be made by indicating what future costs in the current cycle could be avoided by trimming a circuit this year rather than deferring until later in the cycle.

This tool has helped us manage our overall program with greater success, and our executive vice president and general manager, board of directors and other managers have appreciated seeing the conciseness in the trends of the data.

It adds another element of reliability to the formulation and approval of dollars asked for annually.

utility

Improved Adaptability

Ideally, once we had developed a desirable cycle, we’d stick to it.

But as we’ve learned over the years, projected cycles become moving targets with contributing variables.

As noted, weather patterns influence the work that can be scheduled, completed and afforded.

We often spent much of our focus and effort on the stressful, time-consuming identification of the objects we expected would have the least-negative impact on power system reliability.

By helping identify and prioritize workloads, analyze costs, enhance system management, improve reliability, manage risk and make more effective decisions, the new software has helped us streamline our process and obtain the greatest value for the money spent.

This can be a big help, especially for UVM managers who need to go up the ladder for additional funding that will help keep lines up and vegetation out of the way.

arbor

The collection and leveraging of relevant data is a major part of the way companies in all industries are doing business, and for us, the insights we’ve gained from using Arborcision have been invaluable in the cooperative’s right of way management program.

It has allowed us to:

  • Determine cost drivers and the future state of circuits, as well as the overall system;
  • Identify areas at risk of class jumping and their potential costs;
  • Develop proactive plans that use accurate quantitative data;
  • Evaluate contracting methods and their financial impact; and
  • Assess work crews for efficiency and value.

Our decision-making process is now much sharper and analytical, which has been a great benefit to our UVM program.

By having comprehensive data in an easy-to-use format, we have increased our system reliability, our personnel have managed the work smarter, and our cooperative is serving its members better.

Wil Ortiz is manager of vegetation management for Union Power Cooperative. Ortiz’s duties extend beyond the rights of way to maintenance of vegetation around underground equipment, substations, as well as upkeep of cooperative-owned facilities. He has a bachelor’s degree in resources management/forestry from the State University of New York at Syracuse (also known as the College of Environmental Science & Forestry). He also is an active member of the International Society of Arboriculture and the North Carolina Urban Forest Council. Reach him at wil.ortiz@union-power.com or 704-289-3145, ext. 3323.

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