By Kim Dorman
It’s hard to know if right-of-way vegetation management dollars are spent wisely without a good look at the lay of the land. In decades past, that meant walking the lines several times a year, taking notes on paper maps to identify danger trees and threat trees that need to be removed, and then compiling documentation throughout the year. This time and resource-consuming process was the state of the art for decades.
But the new state of the art has become a science for Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO). The company developed a proprietary mapping system that incorporates handheld GPS units and specialized software, allowing VELCO to pinpoint incompatible species and undesirable brush infestations; protect endangered species; and keep the power flowing throughout the state.
Narrowing the field
Jeff Disorda, supervisor of right-of-way management for VELCO, can provide a right-of-way vegetation management cost-per-quadrant analysis at the touch of a button. He can pinpoint the location of a flower that is so rare it may bloom only once every 30 years in the VELCO right-of-ways. He can then rope off a safe zone around that plant to keep tire treads, chain saws and backpack sprayers at a safe distance.
But all of this precision is a secondary benefit when compared with the efficiencies electronic mapping have created in right-of-way maintenance for VELCO — pinpointing each danger tree, threat tree and vegetation treatment type. No budget is wasted, no effort is lost.
Pinpointing problems also gives Disorda the ability to plan ahead and build a precision program for managing the 12,000 acres of right-of-ways under his management.
The National Energy Regulatory Commission (NERC) issued new mandates for the development of annual work plans in order to keep trees away from transmission lines after the 2004 blackout on the Eastern Seaboard. These new NERC standards gave Disorda the extra fuel he needed to get a more technologically advanced mapping system into place. While good mapping is a sound result on its own, the system provides him with benefits across the entire scope of his work.
“Because we have this mapping software and technology in place, we can much more easily decide whether mowing, spraying or major tree removal is required,” said Disorda. “We can then make sure we have the right contractors, the right equipment, and the right products lined up to keep the power flowing throughout the state of Vermont.”
VELCO is the country’s fastest growing transmission company. It was formed in 1956, becoming the first transmission-only company in the nation. So it’s no surprise that the company remains on the cutting edge of right-of-way management practices.
The company also takes its commitment to environmental sustainability and natural resource management very seriously. For many Vermonters, the landscape is what drew them in and keeps them there, so the way those assets are managed is extremely important to them.
Disorda’s program includes many measures to minimize environmental impact. Most of the roads in the right of way are wood chip roads to minimize the soil compaction that heavy equipment can cause. Rare plants are protected, and aggressive invaders are contained to preserve the plant ecosystem that belongs in that part of Vermont.
“Our constituents are acutely aware of what they see on the landscape, and we do everything we can to keep them happy,” said Disorda. “We have kept pole heights low to reduce the visibility of our lines, and even chose wood poles that match the trees in the area so that they blend in with their surroundings.”
To meet the expectations of federal regulators at NERC, power customers and Vermont residents, VELCO put the latest technology for mapping and planning into the field.
Technology is key
“Our first step was to evaluate the different types of GPS units that would be our primary data input point,” said Disorda. “We checked them for field performance and durability, accuracy, versatility and overall user-friendliness.”
The VELCO team evaluated four different GPS models, settling on the one that provided the best balance of features for the team. Some of the measures most important to VELCO included battery life, operating system, weight and size, display clarity, and data storage space.
“If it is clumsy or difficult to use, it really cuts into the likelihood that the information will get into the system,” Disorda said. “We chose a model that works best for our landscape type and the software system we built to house and analyze the data.”
VELCO settled on the Itronix GoBook Duo Touch Tablet PC as its mobile unit. The device functions both as a handheld and as a mounted device. VELCO crews have mounts in their trucks to immediately download information at the touch of a button.
The Itronix also provides excellent GPS antenna performance under the tree canopy and uses the Windows XP operating system, making the transfer of data from GPS to office computing a snap. It is very durable, designed specifically for field uses like these.
Disorda worked with the VELCO internal CAD/GIS support team to develop a specialized toolbar for marking different landscape features important to the right-of-way maintenance function. Crews can mark danger trees and threat trees; make treatment recommendations or mark areas such as fences, streams and property lines; and even add images to support recommendations.
Once the information is gathered on the ground, it is integrated with aerial photography to form a comprehensive map of each line segment. This information can be updated in real time from the field and made available to crews working throughout the entire state.
Putting the data to work
It used to take Disorda and the VELCO team countless hours to catalog the data, working from paper maps and notes to create an Excel file for mapping and planning purposes. With the new technology and software in place, that time has been cut down dramatically, while the precision and detail have gone way up.
“We feel that we now have a true ‘inventory’ of our right-of-ways,” said Disorda. “We can make our plans with confidence and support all of our budget requests with whatever data decision-makers need.”
Disorda can examine each polygon of information to identify priority areas for treatment during the season. The data also helps VELCO identify ways to save money and reduce environmental impact in vegetation management.
“We consider any tree more than 12 feet in height at maturity to be incompatible with the right-of-way,” said Disorda. “The sooner we inventory vegetation, the earlier we can catch those trees and avoid expensive and invasive methods for tree control.”
VELCO uses many different tools for incompatible species removal, such as the Brown Brontosaurus flail tooth excavator mower. The mower chips the trees down to the ground, leaving no stump behind.
“The Brontosaurus is great for large tree removal, but it has a big impact on the compatible vegetation in the right-of-way,” Disorda said. “Anything we can do to minimize the footprint we leave behind is a benefit to the environment, so we look at all of our vegetation management options, including selective herbicide use.”
When herbicide applications are the right answer for VELCO right-of-ways, Disorda turns to companies like Vegetation Control Services, which has been working on VELCO right-of-ways for 30 years.
Vegetation Control Services crews use backpack sprayers loaded with Arsenal PowerLine herbicide to control incompatible brush in right-of-way areas. Using herbicides with a selective application method minimizes the risk of off-target damage and the overall landscape impact of the operation.
Before applicators go into the field to spray, rare plants can be roped off in designated buffer areas. Aquatic areas are marked to ensure that a 30-foot buffer remains in place. Disorda also marks a few hardwoods and apple trees to be left growing for wildlife uses.
Disorda also works with landowners and elected officials on a regular basis to make sure that everyone understands the decision-making process on the plan and the benefits of integrated vegetation management for wildlife, aesthetics, ecosystem integrity and power flow.
With the new system in place, Disorda is seeing real results on several fronts. Budgeting is easier because of the data-supported planning process; execution can be monitored throughout the season; crews are more effective; and the results are easier to evaluate.
Vermonters and customers alike appreciate the reliability and integrity of VELCO’s operations throughout the year. VELCO is also feeling even more confident that it is meeting NERC standards for reliability, a huge asset for the team.
“We’re seeing a huge return on our initial investment in technology, year-round and system-wide,” Disorda said. “We actually have more and healthier rare plant populations, and the efficiencies we’ve created in our program will keep upping the value of the investment for years to come.”
Kim Dorman is communications specialist at BASF.
Arsenal PowerLine is a registered trademark of BASF Corporation. Always read and follow label directions.
GoBook is a registered trademark of General Dynamics Itronix.
Brown Brontosaurus is a registered trademark of John C. Brown & Sons, Inc.