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Staying One Step Ahead Of Mother Nature

New technologies can help curb the effects of weather events on power lines

Drones fly very close to utility assets to take the clearest images and provide data to help keep an eye on how close vegetation is to equipment.

April 2023

by Jennah Denney, Contributing Columnist

Mother Nature tends to have a mind of her own. Utility power lines are constantly at risk from severe storms — particularly fallen and overgrown tree limbs, which can lead to power outages. It’s estimated that 50% of outages can be attributed to overgrown vegetation, which is why electric co-ops regularly trim and maintain their local systems.

This tried-and-true method requires a significant amount of on-the-ground labor, including manual data collection, in which dozens of workers assess the vegetation that needs to be cleared while walking below the infrastructure, as well as manual verification of the work’s quality and completion by contractors.

This is how things have been done for the past few decades. This method has been effective, but in the era of extreme weather events and accelerating digitalization, electric co-ops are looking to innovative vegetation management methods to improve power reliability for the members they serve.

LiDAR paired with satellite imagery can be used to collect detailed, beneficial data on large amounts of vegetation near power lines and other utility assets.

LiDAR, which stands for “light detection and ranging,” gives exact, three-dimensional data about the shape of the surface around utility assets. LiDAR is a popular way to scan portions of forests to determine how tall trees are and acquire information about their health, like whether a tree has leaves. LiDAR doesn’t provide data on how healthy plants are in general, but the technology can be paired with high-resolution multispectral satellite imagery to obtain accurate information about the health of the plants surrounding power lines. Timely data like this is extremely beneficial and can help electric co-ops make more proactive planning decisions.

Electric co-ops are also using fixed-wing aircrafts and drones to keep an eye on and control the growth of trees and plants near power lines. Drones fly very close to utility assets so they can take the clearest images and provide data to help keep an eye on how close vegetation is to equipment and check the health of trees to see if they are likely to fall.

SDCEA contracts to use a DJI Matrice 300 RTK drone equipped with LIDAR, which can provide precise 3-D mapping by using laser pulses to measure distances between objects. The images show vegetation impinging on co-op lines and crews are sent to clear those areea.

Many co-ops are utilizing drones with cameras, which began as a novelty tech for utilities but are now considered essential tools. When it comes to taking care of surrounding vegetation, drones are often used for detailed surveys rather than large-scale monitoring like satellites. Once LiDAR or satellites (often together) have collected data on a large amount of vegetation near power lines, drones are used to inspect a single area and do all the necessary checks without putting operators in danger.

Electric co-ops place a high focus on vegetation management. It is the most crucial tool for reducing the likelihood of power outages. A thorough understanding of the vegetation’s past, present and projected future is essential for a successful approach to reducing these risks.

The growth of LiDAR, drone and satellite data presents an opportunity to close the loop with continuous data-driven vegetation management intelligence, and to increase the power line system’s dependability and safety. In the end, all three technologies for managing vegetation serve different purposes, and electric co-ops choose the ones that work best for them.

Jennah Denney writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.