Satellite monitoring helps utilities manage risk, boost biodiversity

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

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