Welcome to the Eleventh Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!
Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 11
Vegetation Management Best Practices in Action
A conversation with Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) Vegetation Management Program’s Eric Brown
Tejpal Singh, COO and Dr. Phil Charlton, Principal Advisor at Iapetus Infrastructure Services
I’m currently the manager of SMUD’s TMD (Transmission Modernization Demonstration) system. I have 26, almost 27 years in the utility VM space in various roles. Fortunately enough, I learned a lot at Pacific Gas and Electric for 20 of those years: twelve as an employee, eight as a contractor. I had really great opportunities in this industry to spend with excellent personnel, excellent people, excellent industry group. I spent a lot of time with the North American Transmission Forum, the Utility Arborist Association, National Arbor Day, a foundation Western chapter. I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with great colleagues and peers in various different roles in those organizations. Most recently I just finished up as the President of the Utility Growers
A Bigger Take on VM
Many programs and many utilities, frankly, look at vegetation management as is either simply pruning or removing a tree at some point in time. But it’s much bigger than that. Certainly, out in
the west, everybody is really familiar with it. But there are other states that seem to be catching on and understanding the risk, frankly, that’s out there around their network.
It’s not like we’ve got a small footprint. We are a nine hundred square mile service territory. We’re at just around five thousand overhead distribution miles, five hundred overhead transmission miles. We have about six thousand miles of underground here in our service territory, pretty substantial hydro generation set of assets, definitely a larger portfolio of solar and wind that also support our company and customers.
It’s it’s pretty robust for a publicly owned utility. Frankly, we’re the sixth largest publicly owned utility in the U.S. And our annual budget here at for vegetation management is about $54 million. So, when you start to look at that, we’ve got a lot going on. And it’s not just a maintenance activity, frankly. We do have a robust maintenance activity on our distribution and transmission network.
Our profile and scale is a little bit different than others. Many utilities have gone to a full contract-based inspection program, but SMUD from a long time ago has had in-house inspectors that do their planning and patrolling. That was set up a long time ago through the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and it’s been a pretty good program. We do have a contract workforce that also does inspection for us currently on an as needed basis, and then we have a full contract workforce that’s doing our tree work for us and that’s multiple contractors.
We have about eight different full-time contractors doing tree work for us in various different roles. And it’s not just typically pruning or removing a tree. We have some large-scale logging
activities, large scale fuels reduction, thinning activities and more. We cover a vast type of landscapes from some of the actually our first hydro generation facility actually starts in an actual wilderness area, which is really unique.
We actually pack in with mules, all of our equipment and maintenance tools and fly in personnel once a year to do maintenance activities on that. But we’re also then the capital of California. We are Sacramento. We serve the capital. So, it comes with a lot of different political challenges associated with that. Our business unit touches almost every single other business unit in SMUD.
There isn’t another business unit in the company since we went to smart meters that touches face-to-face customers more than the vegetation management program does. So, we have the best opportunity to educate. We have the best opportunity to interact with support, influence and partner with our community owners in our service territory, which is exceptionally unique. We also partner with our engineering teams, whether that be transmission engineering, distribution, engineering and even many of the underground activities where we’re changing out facilities in urban settings from overhead to underground.
The City of Trees
We live and operate in the city of trees. Sacramento has been named the city of trees for decades for a reason. We have probably one of the most over mature, frankly, urban forests out there, which poses a lot of unique challenges around electrical assets, both overhead and underground. Lots of politically charged challenges out there. We have a phenomenal brand image which is fantastic, and we’ve got some great collaboration inside our company.
We get reached out to daily from designers, engineers, construction, and field teams. All of our communications teams are interacting with our vegetation management team on a regular basis. All of our corporate communication teams are looking to us to support communications out to customers and our to our board as well as our legal and regulatory teams are regularly reaching out to us and we’re participating in a number of efforts, whether they be state legislative activities and or state fire threat mapping activities.
We’re partnering saddled up side-by-side with those team members. They’re covering one portion of a subject matter expert component, and we’re covering the other, the vegetation management piece.
In that portfolio of eight contractors, one of our IVM tools that we use regularly is sheep or goats. It’s livestock grazing. It manages fine flashy fuels and unwanted or undesirable vegetation in our transmission and distribution rights-of-way. We also have some utility owned properties that have state and or local weed abatement requirements.
Instead of using fossil fuels to mow those and potentially starting a fire with a mower with rocks, we actually deploy livestock out in those areas to kind of manage some of that vegetation. It’s actually great for the community. We usually get a lot of great responses from customers’ associated homeowners associations, as well as providing a really good end-to-end product by using that livestock in a really robust way to try to reduce undesirable vegetation.
The SMUD Customer Satisfaction Culture
The SMUD culture is deeply ingrained in everyone’s DNA. And I can thank my past colleagues, peers for all that they’ve done to build the brand image of SMUD in this community. But each business unit has a key role in ensuring, preserving, enhancing, and improving customer
satisfaction on a daily basis. There aren’t too many utilities that have 95% customer satisfaction rating, threshold and target for our tree contractors.
And we’re monitoring that weekly and then on a monthly scale with monthly metrics and targets, and then ultimately quarterly and annual targets on that. And we’re sitting around 96 to 98% on customer satisfaction. When you think about it, we’re uninvited guests to people’s properties to prune or remove at times. Family members, if you will. If you think about it, many people are very attached to their trees and understandably so.
So are we. I’m an arborist for a reason because I love trees and I’ve been involved in this industry that long. So, there’s a lot going on as it relates to brand image. There’s a lot going on as it relates to customer satisfaction. And I would just say that our company—that includes our contractors and all team members—probably eat, sleep and breathe continuous improvement as it relates to customer satisfaction. And that customer service is embedded in everything we do on a daily basis.
A Different Relationship with the Forest Service
We are so fortunate to have a phenomenal relationship with both the U.S. Forest Service, the El Dorado National Forest, which starts in and around Lake Tahoe. For those that are trying to get some perception on where we’re at: In and around Lake Tahoe, the jewel of California, if you will, the El Dorado National Forest has partnered and collaborated with us better than any other
forest that I’ve ever worked with in the state of California.
I’ve worked with 12 other forests in my tenure here in the state. And we’ve got a phenomenal relationship. It’s as collaborative as it could be, sharing data and sharing information back and
forth to achieve a common goal, which is natural resource management, improved forest health, asset reliability, asset integrity, reduce wildfire and catastrophic wildfire risk, improved natural resource and wildlife habitat.
All of those components go hand in hand and we—in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service here on the El Dorado—have undertaken probably some of the most forward thinking and maybe out-of-the-box type work that’s been going on. Most utilities typically focus their work and activities within the easement or along isle along the easement wire zone, border zone, and definitely not the outer zone when you really get down into the IVM weeds. We are actually doing fuels reduction work, forest health work and thinning activities to 300-400 feet outside that easement in collaboration with the forest.
It aligns with forest goals. It aligns with federal management needs. And then let’s tent transition to the Bureau of Land Management. Historically, it has been a pretty challenging agency to work with and we have a great relationship with them. It was a little rocky at the start, but we’ve made a lot of improvement recently. Actually, I just got an approval to use IRT to use herbicide to treat on Bureau of Land Management facilities property around our assets, which I tried that 20 years ago when I got into the industry and the door was slammed in my face.
But the agency personnel have changed, the leadership have changed, and they understand the value of really low volume targeted treatments to specific undesirable vegetation. And the botanist, as well as the senior leaders here in El Dorado County for the Bureau of Land Management, have provided us a great platform to continue to use as a study the work activities that we’re completing on their lands.
That includes hand cutting, mastication, the use of livestock where necessary, but adding that additional component of targeted low volume herbicide treatments on their land is going to provide them exponential benefits because the work that we are doing is starting to show increased populations of sensitive and endangered plant species and them allowing us truly trusting us to use herbicide in those types of environments in that critical type environment shows a huge, huge improvement in our relationships. It’s been fantastic.
Innovative Solutions in the Space
I have a huge passion with forward thinking, innovative solutions in our space. Believe me, there’s a time and place for “boots on the ground”. There’s a time and place for typically pruning or removing a tree, but there’s also a time and place for forward thinking and innovation to
be efficient. Leverage the technologies that are out there.
Back in 2010 I started using the remote sensing tools. That’s LiDAR imagery as packages to drive real-time solutions in our vegetation management program. And here at SMUD, I couldn’t be happier with the senior leaders commitment to our programs. The work activities that we have,
LiDAR specifically and remote sensing tools, were instrumental in developing our full true risk profile.
Most utilities are looking at a risk profile as to what’s going to grow in or what may fall into their facilities within the right-of-way. And I looked at that profile and said, “What could truly strike our facilities?” And in our forest, we have trees that are going to grow to be 120, maybe 200 feet tall tops. So, we really needed to look way outside those sidebars and really try to peek at what is our actual risk.
A Unique Take on Analyzing Risk and Leveraging Technology
We have a unique platform here. It’s SMUD, where our CFO, Jennifer Davidson, is also our Chief Risk officer. So not only is she holding the budget, but she’s also holding the risk. At the same time. It’s really unique and many utilities don’t have that. They’re usually siloed or operating in different realms. That right there, I think, provides a unique perspective for her to make financial decisions, but also having that risk squarely sitting there in front of her.
So what we did back in 2017, was we took a look at and identified our true risk. Every tree, every piece of vegetation that could either strike, fall, regardless of condition of health on a 58-mile corridor. And that 58-mile corridor identified a lot, a fair amount of risk. And that platform that I used with the leader was built, was established. It was truly the foundation for a business case for risk reduction, for our senior leaders, not only our executives, but our board members, which ultimately gave us the platform to reduce risk and truly look at and quantitatively and objectively be able to reduce risk. Most programs have a database of some kind, whether that be a spreadsheet or some other remote or some other access type database where they’re tracking information. What the leader provides is a visual. The latter provides not only a visual but a geospatial relationship where that vegetation is. So, I can objectively say successive flights over and over again can truly quantify the risk reduction, whereas in most cases you may have removed 100 trees on a line segment, but in a lot of places they don’t know exactly where those 100 trees are.
Each of these have geospatial unique location on them. So, the 23-plus thousand detections that we had on this corridor has been objectively identified. And then that risk has been reduced
by interactions and partnerships that the Forest Service, BLM (Bureau of Land Management), private landowners, industrial timberland owners and many, many of those stakeholders and team members are asking, “Why these trees, why these conditions?”
Well, if you’re actually doing outage investigations and truly identifying your risk out there, you know, the failure profiles of these tree conditions. Are they limb failures? Are they full uproots?
Are they trunk failures? Are they combinations of those? Do they happen during weather events? But you couple that with the actual point cloud and the detail associated with remote sensing technology, it’s easy.
That picture is worth way, way more than a thousand words. Someone can see it and tangibly understand. I can geographically put myself in that place because I’m the timber management
officer, let’s say for the Forest Service. I remember that tree. I’ve worked on the forest for 25 years so they can see it and understand how we’re getting to the work that were proposing.
The Forest Service and the BLM have been phenomenal at sharing data. They’ve done a lot of surveys and studies for environmental and species and not we as SMUD have done a lot ourselves within our FERC license, which was the easement portion of this boundary. But all the
work that we did outside the easement is data that was provided to us in collaboration from the Forest Service.
We didn’t have to do additional surveys and studies. We identified the work activities and where it was located. And the Forest Service or BLM has shared with us their data platforms that identified any potential species or habitat of concern that were in these areas’ spans, locations, land plots. It was a hit was a huge win for us that that technology has proven itself over and over again to be invaluable in any setting, whether it be political, private landowner, industrial timber
landowner, commercial landowner, board member, executive of everybody can see it and get it a database.
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