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Episode 26: Passion for Pollinators & Technology Approaches in State Utilities w/ Katie Manende

Trees & Lines Episode 26: Passion for Pollinators and Technology Approaches in State Utilities w/ Katie Manende

Welcome to the 26th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 26

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Katie Manende, Manager of Vegetation Management at Central Maine Power.

This episode is part of a special series of episodes recorded from the floor of the 2023 Trees & Utilities conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

Episode 26 Transcript

Tej Singh: Welcome to Trees and Lines. We’re here live at Trees and Utilities. We’re excited to introduce Katie Manende, the head of vegetation management for Central Maine Power. Thanks for joining us. 

Katie Manende: Thanks for inviting me. 

Tej Singh: We wanted to dive right in with you. You have a very interesting background. I think you’ve only been in this role for just shy of two years? 

Katie Manende: Yeah, about a year and a half now. 

Tej Singh: But you come from more the analytics side of things, right? 

Katie Manende: I actually come from operations. I spent the previous eight years before moving into the manager’s role as the local distribution arborist in one of our service centers. It’s more boots on the ground, working with the tree crews, doing the utility line clearance, pre-planning circuits. We’re on cycle in the state of Maine, so working through that program, putting everyone where they need to be, doing storm response. 

Philip Charlton: Is that a state-regulated cycle?

Katie Manende: Yes. 

Philip Charlton: How many years?

Katie Manende: We are finishing our third five-year cycle. We’ve been on cycle for 15 years. 

Tej Singh: How long have you been at CMP? 

Katie Manende: I have been at CMP for nine years. 

Tej Singh: Where were you before that? 

Katie Manende: I was at a company called Sappi. It’s a pulp and paper industry. I was an operations forester, so I did the forestry thing before moving over to the utility side of the house. My background is in forestry and wildlife ecology. They lended really well coming to the utility side. It was, I think, not something I ever anticipated I would do when I was in college going to forestry school. But surprisingly, now that I’m in the utility business, there’s so many people that I went to college with that are in utilities. It’s incredible. They work either for utilities like myself, or they’re working for a lot of the larger companies like an Asplundh or a Lewis or running operations in the field.

Tej Singh: Where did you study forestry? 

Katie Manende: University of Maine.

Tej Singh: In the role that you’re in now, maybe take us through some of the specific challenges that you’re dealing with as a leader of that group. You’re like, do we have enough time? 

Katie Manende: It’s interesting. I would say my first six months was a pretty big adjustment trying to shift going from an operations mindset to more of a management mindset. So there’s a lot of, I think, personal struggles and growth along the way, trying to figure out how to balance both and let go of what I used to do for a day-to-day thing, really being down in the weeds and doing the work and transitioning to designing, not designing the program, but looking at the long-range vision of the program and where we want it to go. 

I am very fortunate that the group that I have are all rock stars, and they do not need any kind of micromanagement from me. They know the role. They know the expectations. They get up every day and get the job done. They make my life incredibly easy, and I thank them as much as I can for it. But it does allow me to focus on those challenges and figure out the things that we need to take care of. 

In my first year as manager, we went through a rate case, and we had an opportunity there to present a new strategy, just knowing the direction that things are going with forest health and climate change, seeing the increased storm frequencies and heavier winds, more intense rains or drought conditions and knowing the impacts that has on tree health. Also with your tree pests and diseases, we’re seeing a lot of issues with that in the state of Maine right now. 

We were able to put together a strategy that really takes what we’ve done in the last 15 years on cycle. It’s really pushing it ahead saying, we’ve done this for 15 years. It’s worked great. It’s worked really well getting that baseline establishment of line clearance. But right now, we want to pivot, and we want to put more focus on those hazard tree removals. We want to get ground-to-sky clearance and really invest where we know it’s going to make a big difference for our customers and improve reliability. It was great, but it was definitely a challenge. I think personally taking that leap of faith to say, this is what I think we should be doing, we should move in a different direction. Yes, we do this well, but where the leading cause of our outages are coming from are not coming from the areas that we’re actively maintaining within our established right of way boundary. 

Philip Charlton: People are realizing we maintain that box around it, but that’s not where the problem is.

Katie Manende: We track every outage, but we really do a deep dive into every outage over a hundred customers. We have a daily reliability call where you have all the players, so it’s veg management, line department, president, vice president of the company. We review everything to say, here’s where our outage was. Did the system work properly as designed? What was the cause? Is there anything that we can go out and do and mitigate this from happening again? It’s really like a very detailed deep dive and a huge culture shift.

Philip Charlton: Are you doing an inspection of the failure? 

Katie Manende: We do, yeah. Every one over a hundred, there’s an actual inspection. It was a huge culture shift for us, and that was something that our president, Joe Purington, brought to the table. We used to do a weekly reliability call, but he’s like, no, we need to do a daily one and establish this as the new standard. It’s been amazing to see the growth and progress in the last couple years that he’s been leading us. 

Philip Charlton: You spend millions to do it, too; provide reliable service.

Katie Manende: We did a more formal tracking of any customer outage over 500 for as long as I’ve been with the company, so definitely much longer than the nine years I’ve been here. But we’ve teased out that 96% of our tree-related outages are coming from outside of our right of way, so outside of our cycle maintenance zone. The 4% that we’re seeing is either a vine growth coming up a pole in maybe a year after a cycle or two years after a cycle and getting into a conductor, or later in the cycle shift, you might have some areas where we’re only permitted to get a limited trim and really not the full standard of what we would like, and you might have some kind of encroachment and a grow-in. 

But that’s 4% of the outages that our customers are seeing. That 96% is really coming from outside of that maintenance zone, and that’s what drove that shift to saying, we need to make a change. We’re still going to keep a cycle program, but we’re going from a five-year to a six-year because really at six years, we still have the line clearance that we need from the side, from the grow-ins or grow-in potential. By doing that, we can shift the money that we would be spending on the cycle trim to those enhanced hazard tree removals and getting the ground-to-sky over the three phase. We think it’s going to be a game changer for us. 

Philip Charlton: Your grow-ins probably don’t represent much of a risk. If they do grow incidental contact, it’s not going to be an electrical outage. 

Katie Manende: Very infrequently. 

Tej Singh: Knowing that from the data, does that change your strategy in how you apply for budgets and rate cases and how you’re communicating with your local regulatory agencies? 

Katie Manende: From a budget perspective, no, because really what we wanted to demonstrate to our commission is we asked for an increase in our budget, but really, it’s just for reflection of operating costs and labor. We didn’t ask for an increase to change the program. We really used the offset of the budget from shifting to–

Tej Singh: You’re just moving dollars.

Katie Manende: We were moving dollars and putting them where they matter. What we demonstrated in that rate case aside with the 96% of all of our tree-related outages coming from outside of our right of way was that we’re seeing those drought conditions, and then we’re seeing these heavy wet– especially in Maine this year, it’s been persistently raining, and we have a lot of uprooting, root rot. We’re seeing the colors changing; the leaves are turning yellow and red now. Really, weeks ago, they were turning red. 

But even aside from that, you have that kind of tree stress, but we also have emerald ash borer, which is really having some significant impacts in the southern part of our state and moving north. Spongy moth, we’re seeing a lot of that. We had some significant late frost. That with the spongy moth, you drive down the road, and there’s just hundreds of oak trees that have no leaves on them. We’re really optimistic that they’re going to come back and respond next year, but no guarantee. That’s really where we need to focus our time and effort is those trees that are under all these various stresses and that we know will come down on the conductors at some point. Our traditional cycle program would never capture those trees. 

Tej Singh: Katie, how big is your team? 

Katie Manende: I have a team of 11 in-house, mostly distribution arborists. We have one transmission arborist, but we’re looking to grow that transmission program and really enhance that. It’s just a large part of what we do as an organization, so we’re really excited to go down that road and build the team and do that. 

Tej Singh: That’s great.

Philip Charlton: You’re one of the few people I’ve ever talked to that’s recommended they go to a longer cycle. That’s a very unique thing.

Katie Manende: You know, it’s funny. Joe, our president, was the one who brought it to the table because he has experience with other utilities as well and had seen a six-year cycle. The first time I heard it, I’m like, no, we can’t do that. We’ve been on a five-year cycle for as long as I’ve been here. Why would we go to a six? That was just my knee-jerk-gut response. Then I sat on it and thought about it, and I started building our rate case testimony. I’m like, you know what? This makes sense. I 100% believe in this, and I’m confident it’ll work. 

I remember having the same conversation with my team. I’m like, so this is our strategy in the rate case. We’re going to request to move and change our program and really pivot to where it matters. They did the same thing, and said, what, we’re expanding our cycle? Then I explained it, and you could see it click, and they were all like, yeah, that makes sense. We’re putting it where it matters and improving reliability for our customers where we can make a difference.

Philip Charlton: Are you doing hazard tree patrols every year? 

Katie Manende: All the time, we are doing that. We get a list every year of our worst-performing circuits from the year prior as far as tree-related outages go. We’ll do patrols of those, and we do a pretty deep dive in removing those hazard trees. But we’re always driving around, scanning, and looking. If we see something that we know we need to tackle, we’re taking care of it. 

Tej Singh: What is CMP’s relationship with technology as it relates to veg? Are you guys technologically friendly? Are you making investment in work management tools and drone technologies and remote sensing? Where are you guys in the life cycle of modernizing  your approach? 

Katie Manende: Definitely on the transmission side, we’re using a lot more of that. LIDAR is a big part of what we do. Both our transmission veg department and our transmission line department have been looking at some different technology with helicopter flights and doing some different assessing. We exchange information back and forth from both of the work that we’re doing, and definitely the same on the distribution side. We did have a work management system that we used for a very long time. We’ve outgrown that, and we’re moving into different things to use in our work, but heavily into GIS. We’re trying out some new things. We’re heading in a really solid direction and excited about some of the stuff we’re doing. 

Philip Charlton: I know you’re passionate about pollinators. Tell us about what you are doing, or is does the company have a program? 

Katie Manende: With my wildlife background, it’s just always been a thing. As a kid growing up, I was always outside, always fascinated with everything, and pollinators are just fun. What’s not to like about them? It started as a home project that I had some milkweed, and I started digging it up and moving it everywhere because I just want milkweed everywhere. I have my own little pollinator plants and keep expanding and probably drives my husband crazy, but he’s like, I just want to mow that area over there. I’m like, no, we can’t, the bees, the pollinators. But I digress. 

We have a very strong established transmission program and really try to promote any opportunity that we can to encourage our local flora, our low shrubs, and really promote that habitat to provide that pollinator opportunity. We were doing it before; it was like a buzzword. We were putting that investment in to promote those areas and protect that habitat. But now more and more, I think we’re finding unique opportunities where we can try to do some implementation. 

We have a little trial going right now under one of our transmission lines that, nothing special, but we just went in and we’re like, wouldn’t it be fun if we tried mowing this patch of buckthorn and got rid of it and do some treatment, have a control plot, do a treatment plot herbicide only, and then do another one where they were treated with herbicide? One quadrant got grasses and then the other one got a pollinator mix and just see how everything comes back and what can we learn from this little mini trial to do some different strategies going forward on our transmission lines where we want to get rid of these invasives that are really taking over the area and do more of a pollinator-friendly establishment that we can maintain and encourage and make it work.

Philip Charlton: I’m constantly losing the battle to buckthorns, so I appreciate where you–

Katie Manende: It is incredible. For as far as you can see, it was just buckthorn. We mowed it all down, and we’re trying to figure out what that looks like. CMP also has a great community relations department. One of the community relations team, she used to work at Maine IF&W, and her and I, we partner a lot trying to figure out where we can take these unique opportunities and do either a pollinator habitat, set up milkweed gardens, get our local Girl Scout troops involved in establishing some of these things either at our service centers or at a place where we can safely get people in and do some work. But we also use our right of ways a lot for bluebird houses. She did a big project with that, trying to set those up on our transmission lines. Really, any kind of pollinator, wildlife opportunity we can take to promote and encourage, we’re going to do it all day long.

Tej Singh: Let’s say I appointed you the president of all US utilities. 

Katie Manende: That’s a lot of power. 

Tej Singh: Yeah, it’s a lot of power. You had to pick one key initiative that you were going to focus on that you would want to standardize across the industry, what would that area of focus be, and what would you hope that everyone would piggyback you with? 

Katie Manende: Distribution or transmission or both? Because they’re probably two different strategies. 

Tej Singh: The question is more centered around where do you feel like the rest of the utility landscape has to come together to standardize something? What area would you take on because you feel like, some people are doing it well, some people are not, and you would want to standardize that because you think it’s the most important? You get to pick. 

Katie Manende: That’s tricky. It feels like a trap question. 

Philip Charlton: You get to boss your peers around. Go ahead. 

Katie Manende: I think what’s interesting about that question, but also hard, is you look at every different area of the United States, and they all have their own different challenges. Like for New England generally, we don’t have a huge fire risk. Where you have different parts of the country, that is a huge issue. Probably the recommendations that I would want to do or where I think we should go, because my experience is solely in the Northeast, would be completely different than what someone else can do in practicality.

I don’t know. I almost feel like I have to back out of this question. One thing though that I would like to see standardized amongst utilities, and it’s really not for an internal benefit for utilities in terms of folks having to come up to a standard, but I think any business, it doesn’t matter if it’s utilities, if it’s forestry, if it’s pick anything you want, I think everyone does a really bad job, or could do a better job, at educating the public about what we do. I think we’ve really tried very hard in the last few years at CMP to really open up that dialogue with the public and say it’s really not as easy as flipping on a light switch. There’s a lot that goes into how we manage our infrastructure and why we take the different principles that we do, whether it’s on the infrastructure side or the veg management side, storm response. 

I think it’s really easy for everyone to sit outside and judge. It doesn’t matter what utility or what business it is, and a lot of that’s probably because we naturally are really good at talking to our peers about what we do but not as great about explaining to everybody why we do what we do, why it’s significant, why it’s important. I think maybe if I was president of all utilities, then that would be my goal and wish when I wake up is really finding a way to strategize how all the businesses communicate why they do what they do. It’s okay that everyone does it a little bit differently, but why is what you’re doing, why is that working for you and your company? 

Philip Charlton: That’s one of the key principles of the right of way steward accreditation program. There are 10 principles, and one of them is specific to engagement of the external stakeholders; educating and informing. 

Katie Manende: I got into forestry because in my little universe, I’m going to get into forestry, I’m going to go work in the woods, I’m not going to have to talk to anybody. I’m just going to be in my own little bubble all the time, and it’s going to be perfect. Then I got into the real world and realized, nope, a big part of what I do is talk to people every day and tell them what I do. I need to explain to them why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I’m recommending when I started, this is your harvest prescription. 

You’re telling me what your goals and objectives are, and this is why I’m recommending we take this strategy over this one. In the utility industry, the forestry world, I think that’s a hard skill for people to do is communicate and really put themselves out there. It’s such an important part of what we do. 

Tej Singh: I think where the industry has exploded based on all the unfortunate events that have been happening around the world, it’s put a big light on this industry. The expectations of these professionals have increased, and so I think there’s some growing pains there. But I agree with you. I think that’s actually a very thoughtful answer to that, the communication part of it. I just don’t think enough people know all the nuances and the importance and the impact of the arboriculture community, forestry community.

Katie Manende: I think having platforms like Trees and Lines, and then you take LinkedIn, which I know you guys found me on there with all of my posts. I think it’s really good for people to take those opportunities and really showcase what they’re doing and try to put it at just a base level of, this is what we’re trying. This is what we’re doing, and just put those little blurbs out there and showcase what everyone’s unique skill sets are. 

Philip Charlton: I’ve always thought at an event like this, we come and we’re all technical. We listen to technical talks. We probably should set some time aside where they teach us things we’re not comfortable with, the communication. How do we communicate up in the structure of the organization? 

Katie Manende: I remember a couple of years after I started working professionally, I was invited back to UMaine by one of my old professors to talk to the junior-senior class and give them an idea of what it’s like to get out in the professional world as well as tips of things you would suggest. There’s three of us who went back, and I think every single one of us said, get comfortable with speaking, get comfortable with communicating a message, and really trying to talk to people who do not understand what you do. It’s huge. I think people really underestimate the power of communication and really how far it can go and also with that, the power of when you don’t do that communication. There’s some pretty negative results that can happen when you say nothing.

Tej Singh: Thank you so much for making time for us today. 

Katie Manende: Thank you again for inviting me. That was great. 

Tej Singh: We’ll have to come say hello in Maine. Actually, one of my favorite beers, Maine beer is one of my favorite beers.

Katie Manende: Yes, come up anytime. We’re getting into the great season of fall weather. 

Philip Charlton: Anytime in the next two months. 

Katie Manende: Yeah, fall weather, bugs have gone. Fall is a beautiful time of year in Maine. 

Tej Singh: Oh, yeah, Maine’s such a beautiful place. 

Philip Charlton: Where are you in Maine?

Katie Manende: I live in southern Maine, but I spent a good amount of years up in the central part.

Tej Singh: Is that Kittery? Are you down in Kittery? 

Katie Manende: Yeah, not too far from Kittery, about 30, 45 minutes north of Kittery, a little bit west of Portland. 

Tej Singh: I mean, it’s such a beautiful state. 

Philip Charlton: Katie, I really do appreciate your experience. Hey, come do this, and I know you’re, what? 

Tej Singh: Yeah, thanks so much. We really appreciate it. Thank you so much. 

Katie Manende: Thank you again so much. This is fun. 

Tej Singh: This is great. You were fantastic. Thank you. 

Katie Manende: Thanks. 

Outro: That’s it for this episode of Trees and Lines brought to you by Iapetus Holdings. If you like the show, please give us a five-star rating on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at treesandlines@iapetusllc.com. We’ll chat with you soon.

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