By Tom Wharton, Dow AgroSciences
This article can also be read in the upcoming Novemeber/December 2004 issue of Electric, Light and Power
Most electric utilities and membership cooperatives have departments dedicated to handling line clearance responsibilities, but it became clear after the August 2003 blackout that executives and upper managers need to take the lead in seeing that vegetation management budgets are adequately funded.
Figures released in the final report issued by the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force were staggering. The estimated total cost of the blackout ranged between $4 billion and $10 billion in the United States, and there was a net loss of 18.9 million work hours in Canada alone. According to reports from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), all of this was sparked by a few branches that made contact with transmission lines.
If the U.S. Congress accepts FERC’s recommendation to enact legislation that provides mandatory, enforceable reliability rules, electric utilities and co-ops will have to update their programs. This is where executives will need to get more involved in the process—because it could be their jobs on the line if standards aren’t met and another blackout occurs.
In past years, most utilities left line clearance issues in the hands of local foresters and right-of-way managers unless they involved major budget decisions. Prior to the potential of deregulation, excessive pressure did not exist to cut budgets and streamline operations. But, in the mid- to late-90s, utilities started downsizing and sought out short-term cost savings. With right-of-way maintenance being the largest component of a power delivery budget, executives at many electric utilities saw vegetation management as the easiest target.
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a catastrophic event to spark significant changes, and that was the result of the August 2003 blackout. In 2004, many utilities and EMCs have scrambled to maintain their rights-of-way and substantially increased vegetation management budgets in the process. In fact, you can’t even get a vegetation management crew in many areas right now because demand is at an all-time high. But, will it be a permanent choice or just a temporary phase?
While the blackout has served as a wake-up call for many electric companies, others viewed it as a simple reminder of why they continue to do what they have been doing for years. For example, it has been a decade since Dixie Electric Membership Cooperative (DEMCO), headquartered in Greenwell Springs, La., implemented what has become a very successful vegetation management program.
“Our program is evidence of what you can achieve when you’re adequately funded, you have a long-term plan, you get support from upper management and the board of directors, and quality applications are performed,” said Gueth Braddock, DEMCO forester. “The fact that we were able to achieve excellent results and improve reliability for our customers, while lowering costs by as much as 40 percent through the use of herbicides and other means, is a testament to the importance of good communication and teamwork between everyone involved.”
There are obvious differences between large utilities with millions of customers and EMCs like DEMCO, which has 80,000 members. But, DEMCO’s advantage over an investor-owned utility is that Braddock gets to meet with cooperative leaders and members of the board of directors on a consistent basis.
“To sit on the board, directors need to be DEMCO members,” Braddock explained. “That means they’re close to what’s going on and they encourage us to provide feedback, which makes employees and contractors feel valued. Their continued involvement will be very important if the government sets vegetation management standards for electric companies.”
FERC stepping in
FERC issued a vegetation management order in April 2004 requiring all entities that own, control or operate electric transmission utilities in the lower 48 states to provide information about their vegetation management practices. This came after an investigation concluded that the blackout never would have occurred if tree branches hadn’t come into contact with lines and caused three 345-kV transmission lines to trip.
However, the FERC investigation also found the utilities responsible for maintaining those rights-of-way had vegetation management programs in place that were in line with current industry standards. As a result, FERC determined that the standards are inadequate and need to be improved.
After analyzing more than 150 responses to its vegetation management order, FERC released a report in early September 2004 with recommendations including improved vegetation management standards, shorter maintenance cycles and renegotiations of easement provisions to provide better access for right-of-way management crews.
NERC creating VM standard
The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) is developing these vegetation management standards with FERC’s support. Ultimately, a vote on the standards by the electric utility industry is expected in 2005. Therefore, it’s vital that executives and right-of-way management supervisors work together to provide their comments and suggestions.
NERC encourages electric companies to provide feedback. It’s as simple as logging on to www.nerc.com/~filez/standards, viewing the draft of the “Vegetation-Management.html” standard and completing the online comment form. This “Version 1” standard is an 8-page document that touches on issues such as vegetation management funding, inspections, schedules, personnel qualifications, communications and compliance measures.
“Involvement and interest in a transmission owner’s vegetation management program is the right thing to do to for an executive truly interested in transmission system reliability,” said John Twitchell, manager of planning with NERC. “NERC standards on transmission system vegetation management will require self-certification by the transmission owner that a vegetation management program is in place and being followed. In most cases, an executive will be the one who is called upon to put their signature on the letter.
“This isn’t something to be taken lightly, because compliance with NERC standards is subject to audit, and non-compliance of any standard will eventually become public information,” Twitchell added.
With all of this in mind, it is essential that executives and upper managers give more attention to vegetation management. If any of FERC’s recommendations and NERC’s standards are accepted and mandated, electric utilities will have a long journey ahead to tailor their existing programs. Instead of primarily focusing on budgetary impact, it will now be necessary for executives to work more closely with right-of-way management supervisors to see that standards are met and lines are cleared.
Wharton is a vegetation management specialist with Dow AgroSciences who has helped electric utilities improve their right-of-way maintenance programs for more than 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 864-486-9957.