Vegetation management and exploitation – future opportunities

Jon Abbatt, principal consultant at environmental consultancy ADAS, who works with a number of utilities like Network Rail, Scottish Power and United Utilities believes vegetation is going to continue rising up the agenda until it is a board-level issue for all major land-owning entities. Here he explains the issues.

The complexity of vegetation control has grown significantly in recent years. The days are over when management meant cutting down troublesome trees and using effective, but environmentally toxic chemicals to ensure operational efficiency and remove safety risks.

Historically, managing vegetation was purely an operational issue. But as progressive legislative changes have come into act and momentum has gathered behind the environmental movement, vegetation management has crept up the priority list.

Today, management requires more professionalism, not only to remain compliant with the raft of increasingly complicated legislation, but because utilities demand a higher standard of arboricultural work.

Furthermore, with climate change predicted (which will significantly affect growth rates) vegetation will become a key tool in mitigating global warming’s localised impact. As such, controlling and exploiting vegetation will be an integral part of utilities’ operations.

Vegetation management is not the straightforward operation it was before – simply cutting back in order to ensure network resilience and improve safety. The whole area has become a lot more complicated because companies need to operate within very stringent rules and timeframes.

Preparing utilities for more freak weather and storm events a couple of decades down the road – perhaps sooner – means vegetation management as an operational issue is going to be transformed in terms of its importance.

A lot of the utilities, especially among electricity network operators, have already started giving vegetation management a much higher priority. This is partly because of their legal responsibilities and partly because of the realisation that the climate is going to be a lot more unpredictable in future and companies need to prepare – it’s a process that takes time.”

But the same obstacles and challenges remain: operational efficiency cannot be compromised; safety is non-negotiable; costs needs to be kept to the minimum and businesses have to remain compliant with the law.

New legislation on the way

By normal standards, 2010 is going to be a big year for the vegetation management industry. Major developments are updates to the way risk from trees is managed, the Plant Protection Products Regulations (PPPR) and the Sustainable Use Directive. The latter is currently under consultation.

While we’re not looking at products being banned, these developments will significantly affect processes and could be a serious headache for operations directors planning their summer management programmes.

In the case of tree risk assessments, he pointed to a number of high profile court cases which had clarified the responsibility owners and managers have to ensure their tree stock does not present an unacceptable risk to personal health and safety. In some cases, he said, the tree owners have been found liable for the deaths or injuries and were ordered to pay significant fines.

And with the production of the draft British Standard 8516 outlining recommendations for Tree Safety Inspections and the on-going work of the Forestry Commission’s National Tree Safety Group, a nationally recognised standard for managing tree risk is rapidly approaching.

Climate change and vegetation management

But it is climate change that will have the biggest long-term impact on vegetation management believes Jon.

Trees can be planted to act as windbreaks, plants with developed root systems can help prevent landslips, soak up water in heavy, prolonged downpours and regulate stream flow into water courses.

Climate change is really the sharp end of how utilities are going to manage vegetation in the future. Once it was a question of keeping it under control and minimising the costs incurred; in the future utilities will be relying on trees to protect exposed facilities from storms and soaking up surface water.

Nothing can be said with any certainty, but all the evidence suggests temperatures are on the rise. By how much we’re not yet sure – for what Copenhagen was worth, we’re working towards a 2OC rise, but many scientists think it’ll be closer to four by the end of the century. Either way, it means in the UK we can probably expect more storms and the rate of vegetation growth to speed up.

From here though, everything is a variable. We’re currently doing a lot of research into climate patterns and growth potential to see how we can help utilities plan their vegetation management strategies for the long term.

An example is ADAS’ investigation of the role tree growth regulators could play in the UK. Currently the practice of limiting growth with chemicals is carried out in the United States, but ADAS is conducting the first field trials to assess their suitability for British utilities.

The consultancy is also conducting studies into the impact higher temperatures will have on growth rates, potential change in vegetation types and what this could mean for pruning and spraying timetables and leaf fall patterns.

The tools of the future

Down the line, Jon also said computer mapping and technology will grow in importance.

Currently ADAS is halfway through a contract to risk assess every tree over 15cm diameter on 20,000 miles of Network Rail’s tracks – an estimated tree population of 180,000. ADAS has developed a bespoke data capture system and from the information collected, Network Rail will know the exact location of all the trees and the threat they pose to the lines. They will then be able to prioritise their tree clearing schedules much more effectively.

The stock tools of the trade – chainsaws and herbicides – will be supplemented by field-based data capture, central database creation and advanced mapping software that will allow organisations to make decisions both from the office and field.

The convergence of mobile hardware with Geographic Information Systems and low cost, precision GPS makes it possible to provide field staff with easy-to-use distributed vegetation management systems. Seamless maps can be created from live inputs laid over historical data and additional information like aerial photographs and boundary lines – all in cost-effective, portable equipment.

The beauty is that once the data is in management becomes much more efficient and can be planned into schedules well in advance. It also gives you the ability to predict: how high and how fast will particular tree species grow? When are they likely to become a risk? How could they affect water flow? When will they shed leaves? How effective will certain trees be as wind breaks in twenty years’ time? This level of detail at a macro-level is invaluable.

He concluded that the interplay of growth rates, changing weather patterns and site-specific considerations means one-size-fits-all strategies will not work in the future. Utilities, he said, need to be doing some serious forward planning, because all sorts of challenges – whether they come from government legislation, changing weather patterns or new technology opportunities – are in the pipeline now. It is not a question of if they arrive, but when.

Jon Abbatt is an experienced project and business development manager with more than 15 years experience of working with utility, highways, rail and developer clients. He has particular expertise in forestry management, tree surveys, ecological surveys and mitigation schemes, GIS and wind farm development.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie