A Geographic Information System (GIS) technology expert has urged electricity distributers to rethink their management of vegetation around powerlines, with a series of extreme weather events raising doubts about the safety of the nation’s electricity infrastructure.
Earlier this year extreme heat and high winds forced a South Australian power company to cut electricity to large parts of the state after fears severed powerlines could spark a bushfire; while thunderstorms and scorching temperatures caused similar concerns in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia.
The Victorian Government’s response to a 2009 Black Saturday bushfires taskforce report, which found fallen powerlines started five of the 11 major fires, has also fuelled the debate around powerline safety.
Speaking from the Energy Networks Conference in Brisbane today, Esri Australia GIS for Utilities expert Harry Kestin said the dangers highlighted the need for a new approach to vegetation management.
“Falling trees near powerlines are clearly a danger to public safety and the electricity network itself,” Mr Kestin said.
“Many electricity distributors already use GIS technology to mitigate these dangers and ensure vegetation is cleared to safe distances.
“However, many also needlessly spend hundreds of thousands of dollars implementing additional bespoke vegetation management software.
“The message I’m trying to get out there is this is a waste – when it comes to GIS technology, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to effectively solve the problem of vegetation management.”
Mr Kestin said there are commercial off-the-shelf products available that work with GIS technology to enable electricity distributors to develop effective vegetation management strategies based on their policies and the characteristics of their network and distribution area – without having to break the bank.
“These systems make use of information specific to certain locations – such as vegetation types, population density and historical weather or fire data – and integrate it with network data to give an advanced view of the type of vegetation management required to protect electrical assets,” Mr Kestin said.
“Management strategies can then be based on relevant local factors and targeted to specific areas – instead of the current scattergun approach.
“For example, while a current vegetation management cycle might dictate trees near powerlines in a certain area should be cut back every three years, other uncontrollable external factors may come into play, such as drought or flood.
“GIS technology enables users to analyse these scenarios and delay or bring forward the cycle, which results in a safer environment, reduces over or under-servicing, and delivers more efficient resource use.”
Mr Kestin said the technology’s auditable properties enabled electricity distributors to comply with government regulatory requirements and monitor contracted maintenance, further reducing costs and resource strains.
“These products maintain detailed records of vegetation management decision-making that can be supplied to regulatory bodies,” Mr Kestin said.
“And while many Australian distributors are opting to reduce the immediate, day-to-day requirements and use contractors to manage vegetation, this brings an increased need to manage and audit the contractors.
“Given that vegetation management spend is often in the tens of millions of dollars, an auditable management tool is critical to ensuring ongoing regulator and management buy-in to vegetation maintenance budgets.”
Mr Kestin said this new approach to vegetation management would also provide ways to document and centralise results from aerial and ground patrol assessments.
“These patrols can supplement the cycle-based approach so hazards which emerge mid-cycle are recorded and tracked electronically and fed into decision-making processes,” Mr Kestin said.
“The technology is also being regularly updated, with developers continuously improving previous releases and delivering better products.”