Transmission from the Top: Evolution of the UVM Industry

By Will Porter, Director of Research, Development and Industry Intelligence

In a few weeks, I will retire from a 25-year career in utility vegetation management (UVM). I began when it was still okay to climb without being tied into the tree. Before we climbed the trees back then, we took walks down the block to see how bad the next trees were going to be and whether the neighborhood was going to be hostile. Fifteen years later, I became a consultant with CNUC. Today, like when I started, utility arborists must manage dangerous, unforeseen, and stacked or multiple risks. They are still confronted by angry property owners who don’t want their trees butchered. However, now they must be tied in whenever they climb. I would summarize how the UVM industry has progressed over the last 25 years like this:

The technical aspects of tree surgery and arborists’ equipment and methods have continued to improve and bring more consciousness to safety.

Although companies such as CNUC have introduced planning and informed decision-making into the workplace, much has remained the same in terms of when, how, and for what reasons trees and other plant life are managed.

The public’s attitude, awareness, and interest toward UVM has remained less than enthused.

Generally, we are still fixing the conflict between trees and power lines after it has become a problem. Sustainable preventive solutions continue to elude many utilities, because they are not attractive to enough stakeholders to make them become a reality.

There are a few observations about our organization and the industry that could result in a 21st century industry transformation to sustainable, benefits-based, high-quality environmental management.

CNUC employs a group of socially-aware problem solvers. Many of CNUC’s employees could have easily headed into a different career if CNUC had not created opportunities that satisfied their desire to do something to cultivate the relationship between people and their natural environments.

Electricity markets are changing rapidly and the future could look considerably different. Distributed energy resources such as a rooftop solar combined with battery storage, electric vehicles, and regulated rate emphasis on performance rather than cost of service will impact UVM directly. The need for UVM will expand to include the protection of new kinds of electrical assets, such as wind and solar.

UVM will also become more critical for reliability and safety because the grid is becoming hypersensitive and responsive to faults and changes in load.

The regulatory process for securing dollars through electric rates will expect more data that measures the performance of UVM programs.

It is entirely possible that the quality and usefulness of landscapes that are commonly associated with powerline corridors will become as important to consumers as the electricity itself. The narrative will change to what is positive and beneficial in the corridor rather than what is the obstruction or nuisance.

The purposes and methods for management of landscapes and plants by non-line clearance land management professionals could become more synergistic with the safe operations of electrical generation, transmission and distribution assets.

The UVM industry’s success with the management of landscapes that support electric components could become sought after by many other green infrastructure management efforts in cities, towns, and rural areas.

These are more than predictions. They are in fact a foundation for services and commodities a socially-conscious society is going to need in a world where we are compelled to respond to climate changes. It is apparent now more than ever before that we need to identify, reduce, and convert the negative and unsustainable impacts we have on the environment to leave a better earth for future generations.

It has been an awesome opportunity for me to work with trees and people, and as a CNUC employee, to be able to have an influence on the future.