On my descent into Oakland on a recent flight, I looked out the window to admire the glowing green hills — a landscape California hasn’t had in a good many years. But because of a winter with a dozen atmospheric rivers, the state’s usual brown and yellow color palette had disappeared. Except for one spot. Interrupting the verdant hills, a pale yellow swatch with a transmission tower and small power station stuck out.
Utility companies own and manage a large patchwork of land around transmission lines and towers. There are over 700,000 miles of circuit lines in the U.S. electric transmission network, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Utility companies are landowners just as much as service providers. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric in California owns hundreds of miles of tunnels and canals as well as 200 square miles of watershed lands in 16 river basins.
Utilities have routinely had to inspect and manage the land around their facilities, watching for trees and shrubs that could become hazardous in storms or cause wildfires. But recently, utility companies have started to view their lands not just as a risk to manage but as an asset to invest in. They are turning that brown blemish into a patch of biodiversity with the help of satellite technology.
Satellite imagery provides accurate, granular details about the status of a given plot of land, including the current biodiversity and carbon sequestration on the land in plants that would otherwise have been extremely difficult to measure. Utilities use that data to guide planting initiatives, habitat restoration and other projects that support a variety of plant and wildlife species.
Identifying hazards more efficiently
Before pioneering this new way to foster biodiversity, satellite technology helped utility companies to optimize a process they were already doing — wildfire and storm management.
Traditionally, utility personnel would inspect the land around their facilities on a cyclical basis, looking for whether grass is dry, a tree is unhealthy, or a branch is leaning towards a power transmission tower and maintaining the area every few years.
"The disadvantage of this approach is that either [the companies] are over-maintaining some places or under-maintaining some places," said Abhishek Singh, CEO of AiDash, a satellite monitoring company based in San Jose founded in 2019. "Places don’t have memory; they don't remember that they were trimmed five years back and will wait for five years before coming close to that wire again. It’s variable and depends on things like how much rain happened that year."
AiDash’s customers include National Grid, Entergy, Avista and other Fortune 500 companies. AiDash buys satellite data and uses its algorithm to look at similar factors to the ones seen in person to identify areas that need management without boots on the ground.
"[The utility company] may have the budget or manpower only to fix 50 of the problems in a given year," Singh said. "Which one the utility picks is a big problem to solve. Just knowing that 100 places have a problem is not enough. And [work] contracts are given 12 months in advance, so they have to know which places will have problems 12 months from now."
United Power in Boulder, Colorado, has been using AiDash since 2021 to assess 400 linear miles of overhead power lines in Coal Creek Canyon and Golden Gate Canyon. The prior tree trimming records were limited, and ground inspections inefficient and difficult due to rugged terrain and weather conditions, according to Holly Woodings, the utility’s mountain area manager. Using AiDash, however, dramatically improved efficiency and planning.
So even in those very degraded sites, there are great things you can do for biodiversity.
"This advanced technology is beneficial for transforming vegetation management," she wrote in an email. "We haven't had a wildfire in our territory in the last few years, and AiDash has been able to mitigate wildfires because they now remove hazards before they've become hazards."
Wildfires are a hard metric to show improvement because they are so infrequent. But AiDash has seen customers using the technology on their entire networks reduce power outages by 10 to 30 percent.
A new business in biodiversity
Streamlining a utility company’s trimming schedule is only one part of AiDash’s offering. The true power of satellite monitoring for a climate benefit is measuring and improving the biodiversity on utlity-managed lands.
The land around transmission lines, substations and other industrial sites is usually vacant and bare. AiDash wants companies to ask how they can use that land for their carbon or biodiversity initiatives.
Its clients in Europe have been the most proactive on biodiversity, including drinking water provider South West Water, which provides water to Devon, Cornwall, Hampshire and Dorset in England.
AiDash measures the current amount of carbon stored on the land in the plants and soils, identifies hotspots of biodiversity on the company’s land and recommends activities to increase both carbon and biodiversity without creating hazards.
"Some of our sites are quite industrial," said David M. Smith, natural resources team manager at South West Water. "There's a lot of concrete. But even those sites, you can do things to get more biodiversity onto them like putting up bat and bird boxes. Or managing the mow around those margins, with wildflower meadows. So even in those very degraded sites, there are great things you can do."
But during the baseline measurement Smith was very often surprised with the fantastic woodlands and interesting pockets of biodiversity on the company's properties.
"The quality of the mapping that [AiDash] produces really gives you that brilliant picture," he said.
Singh highlighted other examples of biodiversity investment from utility companies including in California, where utilities are exploring planting agave along the rights of way within the 40 to 50 feet flanking the power lines and towers they are in charge of maintaining. The agave can grow without a lot of water, retards fire and doesn’t grow large enough to interfere with the power lines. And in Florida where wildfires aren’t as much of a concern, companies are creating pollinator habitats along the rights of way.
Now that South West Water knows its baseline, Smith has developed a strategy for the land, including hiring new staff to lead projects to improve biodiversity there.
So, next time I look out my airplane window, hopefully, the land owned by a utility company won’t be a brown smudge, but just as lush as the hills around it and maybe even more so.