One of the United States’ leading vegetation management (VM) experts, in partnership with GIS specialist Esri Australia, has advised Australian utilities on how cutting-edge mapping technology will help them meet new tightened industry regulations.

Head of Vegetation Management at the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) Anne Beard helped reshape the organisation’s VM practices, after the worst blackout in US history led to a strict new law governing how electricity companies control vegetation surrounding their assets.

Speaking from the Energy Networks Australia 2014 Conference in Melbourne, Ms Beard said Geographic Information System (GIS) technology was now at the heart of VM strategies throughout the US.

“The Northeast blackout of 2003, which left 50 million people without power, was the worst outage in US history and was triggered by a tree contacting a power line,” Ms Beard, a Certified Arborist and Utility Specialist, said.

“This led to the introduction of nationwide regulations surrounding the management of vegetation near electrical networks, which included strict standards on planning, practice and reporting.

“In response to these new regulatory challenges – and the resulting increases in vegetation management costs and administrative requirements – GIS technology was established as the best practice solution for dealing with the entire vegetation management process.”

Ms Beard said GIS technology enables utilities to create a map of asset and environmental data, and analyse it against information about inspections, maintenance history, weather patterns and vegetation characteristics to better determine VM strategies.

“GIS technology streamlines VM processes and enables companies to make informed decisions about the location and extent of vegetation management required, anticipated costs and even the best access routes,” Ms Beard said.

Ms Beard said regulatory audits and reports could now also be drawn from the same system.

“Companies can quickly produce and disseminate comprehensive reports based on a range of variables such as inspection periods, regions, vegetation type or contractor,” Ms Beard said.

Australian utilities are facing increasing scrutiny over VM practices and Ms Beard’s experiences are expected to resonate strongly with Victorian-based utility companies in particular.

Companies in Victoria are now navigating a similarly tight regulatory landscape to that faced by their counterparts in the US, following recommendations delivered by the Royal Commission into the state’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

Esri Australia GIS in Utilities expert Harry Kestin said GIS technology could help all electricity utilities meet their regulatory obligations and reduce costs.

“Vegetation management is one of the highest operational expenditures for any utility company,” Mr Kestin said.

“Many utilities outsource the task of vegetation management and lose the ability to keep track of the data produced during the activity which also limits their ability to report back to regulatory bodies in a timely manner.

“GIS technology brings that capability back in-house, providing a company with a greater understanding of what can be done to improve vegetation management efficiency and conduct cost-effective procurement.

“For example, if a contractor maintains control of data from previous VM cycles, they have an unfair advantage when an new contract goes to tender.

“If a utility can provide that information to any potential contractor, it may find that a more cost-efficient service can be provided.”

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