Tree limbs and power lines don’t mix. That was the final verdict after overgrown trees caused blackouts immobilizing major swaths of the East Coast in 2003. (See Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), “Utility Vegetation Management (UVM): Final Report,” March 2004.)
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) responded by enforcing stricter clearance guidelines with hefty fines -- up to $1 million per day -- for vegetation-induced outages. The action underscores the importance of reliable transmission for the thousands of U.S. utility companies that deliver electricity to more than 131 million customers over 157,000 miles of high-voltage electric transmission lines. (See United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Benefits of Integrated Vegetation Management on Rights-of-Way,” October 2008.)
Rather than view FERC’s increased scrutiny as a threat, many utilities see the new regulations as an opportunity.
Rather than view the increased scrutiny as a threat, many utilities see the new regulations as an opportunity to invest in integrated vegetation management (IVM) programs that ensure safe, reliable power transmission and also enhance the valuable natural habitats found in rights of way.
According to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the organization designated by FERC to develop transmission reliability standards, IVM provides practitioners with what industry experts consider to be the most appropriate techniques to apply to electric rights of way projects in order to exceed vegetation control requirements.
NERC doesn’t specify which tactics should be included in an IVM plan, but allows utilities to implement the biological, chemical, mechanical, manual and cultural controls that best suit a site’s brush-control needs, climate, location, habitat and wildlife. The result is a program uniquely suited to the right of way. With the right strategic planning, an IVM plan also can save labor and reduce operating costs.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), vegetation management often represents a utility company’s largest operations and maintenance cost, so it makes sense to incorporate practices that promote self-sustaining habitats that require less mowing, cutting and spray treatments.
With strategic planning, an integrated vegetation management plan can save labor and reduce operating costs. Richard Johnstone, president of IVM Partners and principal of VMES LLC, is an independent consultant who helps utility companies and federal agencies develop IVM programs using best practices that accommodate diverse landscapes. To gauge IVM efficiency, Johnstone conducted research on a distribution right of way adjacent to a forest. According to his calculations, the initial cleanup cost the utility approximately $300 per span. “But after the initial cutting and herbicide treatments,” he says, “we were able to send backpack crews in for selective touch ups for just $10 per span.”
While a multifaceted IVM program is not without startup costs, in the long-term, says Johnstone, an effective program that releases native prairie grasses, wildflowers and low-growing shrubs, which out-compete taller-growing species, can reduce labor, herbicide use and equipment costs. The key, he says, is diligence. A utility can save time, money and resources by finding ways to gain control over brush, but must have a maintenance plan in place that prevents the area from returning to overgrowth and