Episode 12: Risk Management, Public Education, and Industry Advice w/ SMUD’s Eric Brown

Welcome to the Twelfth Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 12

A conversation with Eric Brown – Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) Vegetation Management Program

Tejpal Singh, COO and Dr. Phil Charlton, Principal Advisor at Iapetus Infrastructure Services

Philip Charlton: Welcome back to the second part of our interview with Eric Brown from SMUD. In this episode, we explore how Eric and SMUD were able to get their right of way stewardship
accreditation, Eric’s understanding of risk, and his time as the president of the UAA.

A Different Approach to Risk Management

Tejpal Singh: Eric, I was fortunate that you spent some time with me and took me to observe some of the SMUD right-of-way.  Obviously, I was very impressed with the pristine nature of it, your understanding of risk. We both come from risk management cultures just in two
very different industries in our respective backgrounds.

But you have a very clear way of thinking about risk management. You’re not intimidated by how to incorporate technologies and tools and optimize things. When you went into the UAA leadership role you tried to extend your thinking and have an impact in industry in a different sort of way … What was something that surprised you about interacting with your peers across the country in terms of where their respective programs are and where the level of the thinking is in the market?

Operationalizing Data

Eric Brown: How were you able to do that? How What we did with the technology. Peers and colleagues were asking, how are you able to deploy that on your system?

At the time it was more challenging. When I first started, it was 20,000 miles of transmission line in the 70,000 square miles service territory. It was 118,000 miles of distribution in 70,000 square miles service territory. So, I was able to try to help relate to peers and colleagues that had very little line, or those that had large scale systems, and it was simply talking through that this is not something that we did over.

This was a collaborative effort that we worked with a vendor year over year to develop detection criteria, develop and enhance the tools to operationalize the data. Because everybody understands it’s the common theme. You’re getting fed data with a fire hose. Operations teams don’t have the chance to manipulate data.

They have to take action on something immediately.  They need actionable, operationalized data.  And once you get that to that point, you become well-oiled and you’re able to move through things exponentially quicker. You’re also able to decide whether or not you need to go to locations that don’t have concerns or risk.

So, sitting down with peers and colleagues and basically walking them through, “Hey, I’ll share you my business case. Yes, all of the analytics won’t work for you, but I promise you the framework will if you’re willing to sit down.”

Timing is Everything

Eric Brown: Also don’t be afraid to get turned down sometimes. It’s simply timing. There were multiple times in my career when I took runs at things. I’m giving up some kind of insider baseball info, but here’s the deal. I used the exact same presentation eight months later, and there was only one leadership person that changed in our organization, but simply the timing got everybody engaged. They weren’t distracted on something else, and they could engage, understand it, put their arms around it and say, “Yes, let’s do this.” But eight months prior to that was an absolute. But nothing changed. I didn’t change a single data point in the presentation. The only
thing I changed was the date on the title slide.

Tejpal Singh: that’s a very thoughtful sort of observation that sometimes the timing of when someone’s prepared to hear something and to your point, to kind of stay at it. Because if you’re
committed to making those impacts and those changes, you’ve got to continue to put pressure on the situation to get it across.

A Holistic Approach: Protecting Watershed and
Minimizing Sedimentation

Eric Brown: I mentioned early on our hydro generation assets and conditions.  Our transmission corridors are in and around that same watershed. So, when I started looking at this, I wasn’t looking at it as a linear feature. I was looking at it on the watershed landscape level. In 2014, the King fire happened in El Dorado County.

It was 90,000 plus acres. Fortunately, no one was killed and there was a lot of structures damage and a lot of natural resource damage that occurred. But what happened was—this right-of-way itself, this actual corridor—was used as an anchor point for that fire.  And it probably had a good portion—it was a comment I received from the State Fire organization, Cal Fire—that that was
probably one of the key elements to saving a community called Apple Hill. So, when I started to look at this, I said, we need to do something bigger than just linear asset work. I need to start looking at this as something wider, as how are we going to help protect our watershed and minimize sedimentation down into our reservoirs, minimize turbidity and other challenges associated with it.

Bureau of Land Management Partnership

Eric Brown: When I look at it, I look at it and say, there’s a lot of really important functions of doing work around your conductors or around a tower or a pole, but when you need to look at
something wider scale, that’s how I engage the Forest Service.

That’s how I engage BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to say, we need your partnership. I need your help. I’m not going to purchase wider easements or broaden my permit on federal land. But what I’m going to do is ask you for our partnership so that we can collaborate and do this in a
landscape level, and then what ultimately will happen is the Forest Service is going to take where we left off as a utility, then take that out thousands of acres on either side and create those shaded fuel breaks and thinning activities to reduce wildfire risk.

Misconceptions and Educating the Public

Tejpal Singh: You know what I find kind of very interesting? It’s the range of stakeholders that you touch, which I find fascinating. You mentioned the political landscape in California. There are
obviously folks that are very familiar with the vegetation elements. There are people that are not so familiar.

What is something, what are one or two things that you find that end up being big misconceptions about your industry that people carry and when you talk to them, you find yourself having to kind of recalibrate their thinking because if you don’t, it can impact you from a cost management perspective, from decisions from a misinformed perspective?

Eric Brown: I look at this as looking in the mirror. Because I think as an industry, we have really struggled to educate the public. We’re good at preaching to the choir. We’re good at going
to conferences and talking to subject matter experts and peers and colleagues about our work activities. But we haven’t gotten really good at educating and penetrating the public to understand our business. They don’t.  In many cases our business is looked at as hacking. We’re not looked at as an urban forester. We’re not looked at as arborists, though many of us are. Some of them are master arborist, the highest achievement you can receive.

And at times, the public or communities and stakeholders look at our work activities and they’re looking at it from an aesthetic lens. They’re not looking at it from a tree health lens. And many
times, there’s a lot of misconceptions there. That’s a really hard one. Our industry hasn’t done a great job at educating.

Plan Before You Plant: Connecting the Dots Between
Planting Trees and Power Lines

Eric Brown: We have not done a great job at educating around planting the right tree in the right place, or plan before you plant. Those are constant communications that go out.  But in the industry and at the utility level, I have not found anyone who’s truly connected the dots between the risk associated with overhead power lines and planting the inappropriate or undesirable tree condition, that’s ultimately going be a conflict.

We all set out to do something with a long-term vision. And when we’re looking at that, it could be simply planting a redwood tree, but not knowing that the maturity of that particular tree—it wants to be 300 feet tall at maturity, at optimum conditions. And you plant that under a 35-foot-tall distribution pole and set of wires in your backyard.  You’re on a collision course for failure, but
every year that that tree is growing in someone’s yard, there’s a memory happening near it. It’s either a photograph or someone’s climbing it. There’s some activity, there’s a birdhouse being put in it. Someone gets further attached to it.  So it makes it even more and more challenging to do the right thing in many cases, which may be simply removing the tree and replanting it with something else.  Again, I look at this and I’m staring straight back at myself by saying we have not been able to truly connect the dots: Educating the public—external stakeholders and even internal stakeholders with utilities it’s happening every day— on what we do and why we do it.

Plan before you plant. Whether that’s an underground facility or overhead, a lot of that is never penetrated and we’ve got a lot of work to do there.

Establishing A Distribution Industry Kinship

Tejpal Singh: In your in your time with the UAA, was there something that you felt unresolved with? Like, “I came in to do X and I wish I had a bit more time so I could have finished Y. What was Y”?

Eric Brown: Well, for me, Y is establishing something similar to the transmission industry.  So, in the transmission industry, you have the bulk energy system, which connects all of North America.  There’s a kinship there.  There’s a stakeholder group.  There are individuals who are now partners,

Whether you’re in Florida, you’re in Canada, you’re in Mexico, or anywhere in between.  There
isn’t something like that set up for distribution.  But the interesting thing about it for me is
while there isn’t a regulatory requirement like a NERC.  There are other requirements that we all are challenged to manage: public safety, electric reliability.

Each of us want to provide safe, reliable power to our customers and communities on a distribution network. But we don’t have an organization nationwide, North America-wide, that has that type of collaboration and partnership like they do on the transmission side.  We actually have an opportunity now, which would be my “Y” to create something very similar to that on the distribution side and tie all of those colleagues, all of those programs together … To help develop better best practices, key elements for programs that currently aren’t being shared with some programs out there.  They’re just not connected in the industry well enough. They’re not allowed to, or they’re not able to travel as much as others and many programs are not able to gain those benefits in collaboration.  I see that as “Y”.

I’m not sure that the Utility Arborist Association would be the correct venue for that.  But I truly see in the future some sort of distribution network that is established that connects peers, colleagues, stakeholders together at a better level. And that’s not just once a year at a conference or seminar, but it’s more frequently with a whole lot more rigor.

Tejpal Singh: I obviously have a ton of respect for how you think about not just this industry, but how your approach your profession.

Philip Charlton: He’s always wanting to push us forward.

Advice for the Newer Generation: Continuous Improvement

Tejpal Singh: You really do. And that, and that comes through every time you speak and in every interaction I’ve ever had with you.  If you could give one piece of quality advice to somebody that’s starting their career in this industry, what would you advise them?

Eric Brown: Well, for me, I considered it second nature.  I actually fell into the utility vegetation management space by happenstance.  But I think a lot of our peers and colleagues did. Now Steven’s Point and the University of Wisconsin is the only organization that’s kind of truly embraced in the lower 48, some sort of UVM-type certificate and program.

There’s really not a great education out there that people can get to recognize the true profession that you can be a part of.  For me it was finding something that I loved to do, which was being outdoors—I was a traditional forester by education. That’s what I went to school for, to be in the traditional forestry space, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities there.

And by happenstance I saw the UVM space and made a pretty quick transition to that. And fortunately enough!  But for me it’s continuous improvement. Always looking to drive something forward.  Being solutions oriented, focusing on innovation, not allowing risk averseness to kind of saddle you or push you back, become a barrier.

Be okay with “No’s”. Getting told “No” and just simply chalk it up to timing.  I can’t count the countless times when I was at another utility that we made multiple runs with senior leaders, and I’m telling you, we didn’t change anything in our presentations, the slide deck, other than the date.  All the data analytics were exactly the same.  It was just simply timing or a small leadership change, a thought process.  

Engage Good Consultants

Eric Brown: Engage good quality consultants!  I’ve learned so much from consultants and colleagues in the industry that were not utility employees.  I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without that and frankly owe a lot of my career to phenomenal consulting colleagues that I
was either working for, working alongside and or just simply learned over time, and was educated by them with various roles that I had.

Keep your eyes open.  Keep your nose down.  Focus on as much forward thinking and
innovative solutions as possible, and you’ll be phenomenally successful. And the sky’s the limit for you.

Tejpal Singh: I might have to steal that sound bite and share it with the kids in our education-focused charity, Atlas Scholars.  That was really well said.  Eric, I really can’t thank you enough for
making the time for joining us today.

Eric Brown: An awesome opportunity, I can’t thank you all enough. Hopefully there’s some colleagues and peers and others out there that’ll gain value out of this.  My door’s always open, my phone number is always available.  I’m happy to participate or support anyone in the industry that’s running into challenges. It was a great opportunity to share a little bit about our program and maybe just a little snippet about what went on in my life in the past.  Thank you very much for the platform. 

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