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Unitil is a public utility holding company, headquartered in Hampton, New Hampshire, that safely and reliably delivers natural gas and electricity throughout northern New England. Arbor Age magazine recently asked Sara Sankowich, system arborist at Unitil, about Unitil’s vegetation management program.

Ensuring Reliability

Arbor Age: Please start by telling us a little about Unitil, your territory/distribution area, as well as your primary job responsibilities.

Sankowich: Our principal business is the local distribution of electricity and natural gas in the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. Our affiliates serve more than 101,400 electric customers and nearly 71,900 natural gas customers and provide energy brokering and advisory services to large commercial and industrial customers in the United States.

I am the system arborist for the electric system portion of Unitil. My service territory includes areas in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. My primary job responsibilities are to develop and manage the vegetation management program at Unitil. This includes developing corporate policies, strategies and specifications for the vegetation management program, as well as managing contracts and work implementation. I also measure line clearance costs, productivity and effectiveness and track and administer the vegetation management budget. In emergency restoration efforts, I coordinate the movement and acquisition of tree crews and assist the operations area commanders with forestry resource allocation.


AA: What are some of the challenges you face on a day-to-day basis, and how do you approach them?

Sankowich: The biggest challenge I face on a day-to-day basis is managing safe and effective vegetation management work at the lowest cost while keeping customer satisfaction high. I am challenged to develop and maintain systems for planning, scheduling and supervising multiple resources across three separate geographic regions, and am challenged to efficiently and effectively meet customer needs and expectations, while managing the vegetation maintenance requirements of the overhead electric transmission and distribution systems.

I approach this by breaking down the overall goal into smaller measurable pieces and setting targets for each goal to achieve during the year. I make sure to monitor and review the process and keep myself flexible and open to change when it’s necessary. I try and keep the outlook positive and use that positive energy to carry the projects forward and keep people motivated.


AA: What types of research/data and/or technology do you utilize to better enable yourself to manage trees and vegetation in your utility right-of-ways?

Sankowich: We are currently in the process of implementing GeoDigital’s Vegetation Management work suite to better enable us to manage trees and vegetation on our utility right-of-ways and our distribution circuits. GeoDigital’s software has work planning technology that we will be using, as well as mobile tablet software that Forestry Supervisors and I will be using in the field.

We are also creating a Risk Tree Assessment protocol with Urban Forestry, LLC to better enable risk tree assessment, identification of actionable risk, risk levels, and allocation of hazard tree removal resources.


AA: What types of equipment/machinery do you utilize for managing your utility right-of-ways? Also, do you utilize chemical control methods?

Sankowich: Currently our utility right-of-way management is done primary by mechanical means through mowing and hand cutting. We use chemical control methods of cut stump application of herbicides only after hand cutting in an attempt to reduce regrowth and limit increase of stem density. Since I have been system arborist, we are moving toward an integrated vegetation management approach and plan to use other herbicide control methods in the future.


AA: What is your approach when it comes to dealing with Unitil customers? And what advice do you have for other industry professionals with regard to communication and interaction with residents and businesses in or near the service area being maintained?

Sankowich: Unitil provides more than just electricity and gas services and products to our customers; we pride ourselves on delivering the necessities of life — safe and reliable electricity throughout New England. “Energy for Life” is the statement of pride and commitment that we use to describe this philosophy. When it comes to dealing with customers, I embrace Unitil’s “Energy for Life” philosophy. I, like many of the employees at Unitil, live in a community we serve and love trees. I want to enjoy the many benefits of trees, yet need electricity at my home and for the businesses and hospitals that serve our communities. It is my goal to facilitate the safe and reliable coexistence of overhead electric lines and trees.

This is not an easy job. My approach is through education and personal customer contact. I think taking the time to talk to customers and residents before work is done goes a long way. If they understand why we need to do the work and exactly what is going to happen, there are less surprises and upset residents. We send out mailers describing the work, and we also knock on customers’ doors. We go to town meetings, and talk to town officials to try and have everyone informed before work begins. We handle any concerns personally and as quickly as possible so that the customers know we understand their needs too.


AA: What are some keys to your approach on the job site?

Sankowich: My approach on the job site starts with open communication with contractors, from management to ground workers. In my experience, crews who understand the goals and realize they are an integral part of the team produce better results. This open communication goes hand in hand with coaching crews on the job site. I use these opportunities to coach crews on the quality work expected. Frequent visits and informal discussions allow for great learning experiences and a high return for the time spent.

I follow this up with regular formal vendor evaluations looking at performance against key performance indicators and make sure that everyone is aware of the assessment results. That provides targets for improvement and evaluation against goals.


AA: What tips, in general, do you have for mitigating risk and ensuring reliability throughout the year?

Sankowich: Our program is reliability based, so ensuring reliability throughout the year is a high priority. This starts with how we implement our cycle pruning program. We follow how the electricity runs, from the source out to the customer, and prune trees on streets in that manner. We prune entire electrical circuits from the substation out to the last customer. This could mean we prune all the streets in a town at once, or only some. We rank circuits due for work based on historic tree-related reliability risk and start on those circuits with the highest risk ranking first. Continuing with this, over the course of 5 years, every line on our system will be pruned.

When we are pruning, we take into account the tree species and weather conditions we have in New England to help ensure reliability. Fast-growing species are pruned more judiciously to limit regrowth contacting the lines over the cycle length. Also, pine boughs overhanging our wires are removed or shortened to help prevent failure under snow loading.

We also reserve a small amount of funding for Forestry Reliability Assessment work each year. This provides a marginal amount of flexibility to tackle reliability issues that arise mid-year without deviating from our cycle pruning program.

Perhaps the largest annual reliability benefit is our Hazard Tree Mitigation component. I believe that the greatest improvement in tree-related reliability comes from removing hazard trees along critical portions of our circuit. We have just implemented a significant hazard tree mitigation program and are expecting to see reliability results from it.

Most of our vegetation management programs are designed for normal weather conditions, such as blue sky days and minor storm events. This year we do have a pilot program aimed at Vegetation Management Storm Resiliency. The goal of this program is to test the effectiveness of reducing tree exposure on reliability during major storm events. We will be removing tree overhang and doing intensive hazard tree removal along critical portions of three circuits during this test pilot.

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