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Mother Nature tends to have a mind of her own. In Iowa, we witness this with tornadoes, derechos and ice storms. 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 Iowa’s 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. It also takes manual verification of work quality and completion by contractors.

This is how co-ops have handled vegetation management for the past few decades. It has been an effective method, 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.

Leveraging new technologies

Technology advancement will continue to impact vegetation management, and electric co-ops are committed to staying informed and undertaking modernization efforts. By utilizing technology, co-ops may be able to dispatch crews to perform trimming at the ideal moment and location, preventing additional outages while enhancing productivity, cutting costs and providing better service. Timely monitoring and maintenance are necessary to identify assets prone to sustaining damage or catching fire, so co-ops are tasked with selecting the right technology to make this process more efficient.

The ideal technology will ensure a consistent supply of energy while managing the environment. Today, there are several cutting-edge vegetation management tools, each with its advantages.

Light detection and ranging

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. 

Satellite data

Satellites provide coverage 24 hours a day and can supply two kinds of images: a wide macro view of the area near utility assets and a more detailed micro view. Satellite data can often be used in place of other monitoring methods. With satellite technology, co-ops can learn a lot about local vegetation, including:

  • Health: This knowledge makes it possible to predict vegetation growth based on actual conditions rather than guesses.
  • Dryness: This information is valuable for determining the likelihood of a wildfire – and how to protect wildlife around utility infrastructure. While wildfires aren’t typical in Iowa, recent major events as close as Missouri showed us they could also occur here.

Satellites are always in orbit around the Earth, so data can be updated quickly, in real-time. This makes it possible to act more precisely and on time.

Today, satellite images can have a spatial resolution as small as 1.6 feet, which makes it easy to spot when vegetation is growing in the right of way near power lines and utility equipment. Typically, satellites can speed up the process of inspecting power lines because they give the utility a solid foundation for making data-driven decisions about vegetation management. Drones and helicopters are effective but can take longer to fly along a network of power lines. A satellite can take pictures of the same area in just a few hours.

Fixed-wing aircraft and drones

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

Many co-ops utilize 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.

Finding the best fit

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. Ultimately, 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, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives.

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