A Colorado electric cooperative is using data collected through its outage management system to get more value from its vegetation management and reduce power outage risks caused by trees, wildfires, severe weather and increased traffic across its territory.

“We always look for ways to bring value to our members and the service we provide,” said Tom Walch, CEO of Grand Junction-based Grand Valley Rural Power Lines. “Our team members have harnessed technology and developed ways to use it to identify manageable risks and tailor solutions to improve reliability and reduce the potential of outages.”

Grand Valley Power’s geographic information systems analyst, Ethan Schaecher, spent a month analyzing data from the co-op’s outage management and geographic information systems. He tied outage records to locations and plotted the data on a three-dimensional map to categorize the causes of outages and equipment failures across its entire distribution system.

The results are now used routinely to plan new projects and manage preparations and responses to seasonal challenges.

“We came up with a way to parse data collected from various sources and use it to identify specific outage patterns and causes,” Schaecher said. “We’re now using the data to improve vegetation management and plan system hardening projects and service expansions that reduce our overall outage risks.”

The co-op’s 18,000 meters are spread across nearly 5,000 square miles, extending from irrigated croplands in Colorado’s Grand Valley along the Colorado River to the city of Grand Junction, where the Gunnison and Colorado rivers meet. Elevation differences of nearly 5,500 feet have forged the co-op’s vegetation management program, which includes trimming, cutting and maintaining grasslands and brush, deciduous forests and towering pines.

“We came up with a solution that solves problems for the co-op and provides direct benefits for members who depend on reliable service,” said Schaecher, the principal designer on the project. “This not only helps us, but it offers a new option to other distribution co-ops facing similar challenges that might benefit by using the data the same way we do.”

Schaecher began the project by addressing the main problem: Control room operators monitoring distribution see outages and system issues displayed on monitors in real time, but the locations of incidents quickly vanish once repairs are completed or problems are corrected.

The good news is that the co-op’s operations team keeps descriptive outage records, allowing staff to parse each outage event and tie it to a specific span or piece of electrical equipment on the distribution system.

This interactive database tracked and tabulated incidents over a 10-year period, identifying vulnerable spans and topographic and elevation features presenting maintenance and accessibility challenges. The data also includes locations prone to vehicle damage in the busiest portions of the co-op’s territory.

A 3D web map accessible from tablets and telephones issued to co-op personnel provides guidance used to prioritize tree trimming, mowing and brush removal along rights of way. The data is also used to develop staffing and equipment needs for tackling outages caused by winter storms or wildfires.

Members of the co-op’s staff have presented the project to GIS professionals and shared information with vendors and software developers who might improve their designs and the interoperability of their products.

The co-op used its local pages in the October issue of Colorado Country Life magazine to inform their members of their locally developed project and how it’s being used as they prepare for the risk of winter outages.

“It's a good time for our members to understand the importance of this project and how the co-op is working to prevent outages and enhance reliability with more effective tree trimming and right-of-way management practices,” Walch said.

Besides helping to control labor costs and limit damage to essential infrastructure, the benefits include reduced transportation costs and better buying decisions to meet future equipment needs, co-op officials said.

“Our members rightfully expect reliable and dependable service,” said Walch. “This will not only help us meet their expectations, but we see this as one way we can help keep electricity affordable. And that not only helps the co-op, but helps our members, too.”