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Episode 27: AI Solutions for Climate Change Challenges in UVM w/ Jordan Ambrogi

Trees & Lines Episode 27: AI Solutions for Climate Change in UVM w/ Jordan Ambrogi

Welcome to the 27th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 27

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Jordan Ambrogi, Wildfire Mitigation Program Manager at CORE Electric Cooperative.

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

Episode 27 Transcript

Tej Singh: Welcome back to Trees and Lines at Trees and Utilities. We’re here live with Jordan Ambrogi who runs Wildfire Mitigation at CORE Electric, the largest coop in Colorado. Thank you for joining us today.

Jordan Ambrogi: Thank you so much for having me.

Tej Singh: I’m looking forward to chat with you. Jordan, I don’t personally know a lot about you, and I’d love for our audience to get a little bit more acquainted with you and your background. Before we dive into CORE and what you guys are up to, maybe tell us a little bit about your background and your history in the vegetation and wildfire space.

Jordan Ambrogi: Absolutely. I studied Earth Sciences at Penn State and moved to Colorado shortly after I graduated. I took a job with ECI Consulting as a job planner for CORE Electric. They were called Intermountain Rural Electric Association at that time. They changed their name a couple years back. But I did that contracting position for a year and a half, and the utility forester job opened up at CORE, so I applied for that and got that job. I did that for four years, and then CORE created the position of wildfire mitigation coordinator, which I applied for and got that back in October of last year. Recently, I was promoted to wildfire mitigation program manager. 

Tej Singh: That’s excellent. Thank you.

Philip Charlton: How did you learn about vegetation management at Utilities? Did you know about it from Penn state?

Jordan Ambrogi: No, I really didn’t. When I applied to the contracting position on a lark, not really sure if I would get it. Then I got the call, and I was like, are you sure I’m qualified for this?

Philip Charlton: You’re breathing.

Jordan Ambrogi: Yeah. It was the customer service experience I had because dealing with the homeowners is so important in this field. Most of it was on-the-job learning; learning the tree species of Colorado that I would be dealing with and really learning pruning techniques just by watching the guys do their work, the arborists who worked on our contract.

Philip Charlton: It’s interesting. Penn State has the largest, the longest research in the utility veg management of anywhere.

Tej Singh: Is that right?

Philip Charlton: And yet, nobody comes out of there knowing about it. Nobody comes out anywhere knowing about veg management.

Jordan Ambrogi: No, really. It was something that really didn’t even occur to me as a field of study or anything like that. I was really focused on climate change while I was at school and did a semester-long project on wildfire specifically. It’s come full circle for me in that regard.

Tej Singh: Do you still have an active relationship with the university where you’re building some awareness of the career paths? Because not everyone has gone the university route. Is that something that you’ll eventually plan to do or have interest in doing to build awareness?

Jordan Ambrogi: I hadn’t really considered it, but it’s a good point because I know that’s one of the biggest challenges to our industry is awareness as a career path. It’s a good idea of a way to get involved and promote this a little further.

Tej Singh: Your primary focus is very much in the news these days with the very sad events in Hawaii. When you see these events taking place across the country, what goes through your mind? Do you retailor some of your initiatives? Do you communicate with the local utilities in the states and the countries that are having those problems? How are you gathering that market intel so that you can continue to refine your strategy in Colorado?

Jordan Ambrogi: I am taking really all the lessons I possibly can out of tragedies like this. I read as much as I can, as much as is available about how the utility may or may not have been involved. I am involved in the steering committee for the Colorado Wildfire Utilities Summit, where all the utilities in the state get together, discuss lessons learned and strategies employed for utility or wildfire mitigation.

We have a very active community in Colorado, a very collaborative community amongst the utilities of sharing those strategies. I look to places where these disasters occur like California, and I say, what are they doing? Especially big IOUs who have a lot more budget than we do, what’s the best practice? What can we be looking into that we’re not currently trying? What happened that contributed to that fire, and do we have a solution for that?

Philip Charlton: That’s great. What are the key components of your wildfire mitigation?

Jordan Ambrogi: The first thing is situational awareness. You need to know what the conditions are like on the ground. You need to know what the weather is going to be doing. I can’t speak enough to how important that is, knowing what wind speeds you’re facing, what your equipment is designed to withstand. Situational awareness is a big piece. Obviously, vegetation management, that goes without saying at this point when it comes to wildfire mitigation.

But a lot of it is also thinking about our system protection schemes, and can we arrest arcs as quickly as possible? Can we stop outages and stop faults from occurring where they might set off an ignition or anything like that? Covering up all our energized parts so that wildlife doesn’t contact that stuff. We’re also utilizing new technologies as well. We have drones doing our pole inspections. They’re looking at our poles with visual and infrared, so they’re detecting any potential issues that might occur, and we’re getting those corrected within 30 days. It’s that active maintenance process as well.

Tej Singh: Just listening to you talk, there seems to be a lot of commitment, thoughtful strategy. Let’s talk a little bit about budgets as a coop. I know that dollars are always a concern, and you have to be super efficient and get biggest bang for buck. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that you’re able to drive the initiatives that you want in perhaps maybe a more cost-constrained environment?

Jordan Ambrogi: It goes back to what I was saying with, you look at what the big IOUs do, but you keep in mind, their budget is much different than ours. Their resources are much different than ours. It’s kind of asking yourself, how do you tailor that approach to your utility? You may not be able to have a team of meteorologists on staff, but there are tools that are more and more becoming available to the medium- and smaller-size utility that can replace that, not entirely, but to a good extent.

It’s looking for solutions like that. You’ve got to do your due diligence comparing one versus the other, pros and cons, costs, and everything like that as well, and just seeing how much you can do and accepting what you’re not able to do and making plans for the future to address that.

Tej Singh: Do you guys employ a socialized model where you’ll communicate with the other coops and say, we’re all in the same position; let’s pool capital and resources together and solve this by committee? Does that take place?

Jordan Ambrogi: Not so much, really because you can only operate within your own territory. It is sectionalized that way. I will say the one instance in which the utilities of Colorado are taking that approach is with wildfire detection cameras. Many of us are motivated to build out a network of cameras that will really blanket the wild areas of the state, so we can detect those fires early before they build up momentum, get early attack on them.

I should have mentioned, and it’s part of this as well, the state of Colorado, the Department of Energy, just put together a grant application that many of the state’s utilities were involved in through the IRA trying to get funding for wildfire mitigation projects specifically. That’s another way that we approach that challenge of budget is go after as much grant funding as we possibly can.

Philip Charlton: Your cameras, are they AI monitored, or how does that work?

Jordan Ambrogi: Yeah, they are. We’re currently doing a pilot with Pano AI. I know that several other utilities are working with them as well. They use that AI to detect the smoke plumes, but the biggest part about building a network is they triangulate with one another. When two cameras can see the same smoke, they can triangulate and get a very precise location to the first responders. It really cuts down the amount of time they have to spend looking for the fire. They know pretty much where to go right away.

Tej Singh: How big is your team?

Jordan Ambrogi: I’m the only person with the title, wildfire mitigation at our company. We’re a very lean organization. I believe we have the lowest number of employees per member of any utility in the state, so we do run very lean. But I have a lot of great help from other subject matter experts and upper management at the utility. I consider them a part of my team as well because their input is invaluable.

Philip Charlton: Do you report to the same structure as the veg management group?

Jordan Ambrogi: No. Veg management is part of our operations team. I’m in between operations and engineering, and I report to our COO.

Tej Singh: Switching gears a little bit, I would say your path in the industry has some things that look familiar and some things that are a little bit unique. Some of the questions that we get from our younger audiences career planning, what would be some guidance that you would share to some new faces that are coming into the industry that’s starting early on in their careers? What are some of the lessons learned that you would want to share with them and say, these are some things that if you do this, it’ll really impact your career?

Jordan Ambrogi: That’s a great question because it was not the path that I thought I would take. It was not the straightforward path that I thought I was going to take. One of my biggest lessons or pieces of advice would be, it doesn’t have to be. I think we can all realize that many people’s careers take a very circuitous path. They might end up in a very different place than where they started. But the main thing is pursuing things that you’re interested in and that you’re passionate about. There’s no one route necessarily to the place that you want to get to. It can happen by many different ways, and sometimes you have to be creative.

Right around the time that I was working for ECI and the utility forester job came up, I was considering going back to grad school and pursuing that climate change route a little bit further. When the job came open at the utility, I was not exactly sure if that’s what I wanted to do at that time because in my head, it would take me further away from climate change. But I thought it’s a great opportunity for me. I’ll just take the job, and we’ll see how things go. Five years later, I’m still there. I’m the Wildfire Mitigation Program Manager. It’s a wonderful organization to work at, really fantastic people, tons of respect. Those are things to value in a career as well.

As long as you are motivated and willing to put the work in, you’ll find a way to get into a career that is meaningful to you and fulfilling for you. Just the other piece that I would add, because it was pertinent to my own journey, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. Don’t be afraid to go to your boss and say, I’m ready for more. I’m ready for another challenge. I’m ready for another opportunity. That can open some doors for you that may not have been there in the first place. You might find yourself being tailored for a position that the utility has just created or something like that.

Tej Singh: The wildfire space is more of your concentration, and you do have an interest in climate change. Because I don’t come from this industry, either I’m noticing this trend more and maybe it’s always been there, but we’ve seen a significant uptick across the globe; Greece, Italy, Spanish islands, of course, Canada, Hawaii. Wildfires are just– you just pick up the newspaper, and there’s a new fire every day. What is your thesis on what’s going on? What’s been the shift? Why are we seeing so many more today than we’ve ever seen before?

Jordan Ambrogi: That’s a great question. The first thing that I’ll say to answer that is, we all have to remember that climate is a global average. It’s an averaged-out kind of thing. So, yes, it’s going to be wetter in some places, drier in others, warmer in some, colder in others. But on the whole, we’re trending towards a warmer climate, and that favors extreme weather. So, if the typical weather pattern for an area is to be hot and dry, it tends to become more hot and dry as climate change progresses. Similarly, if you get a lot of storms, you get more powerful storms more often.

California has always been compared to the Mediterranean climate because it’s pretty similar. So, it’s not surprising to see the same factors that are exacerbating drought in California are now happening in Spain and Greece. Those areas where that’s common are expanding. I think in the wildfire space, we have to remember that certain environments like Colorado, fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. All the species, plants, and animals there are adapted to fire, but to low-intensity surface fire.

Because we’ve suppressed that for 50 years, it’s allowed fuels to build up and now when fires do spark, they’re super high intensity and don’t have that rejuvenating power that they used to have. Now, it’s just pure destruction. It’s something that in the face of climate change, we’re going to see conditions that are more conducive to fire. That’s where the fuels management becomes so important, is taking the fuels that have accumulated, clearing them out, masticating them—there’s a number of methods to do it—so that when the natural fire does occur, it’s not destructive and devastating.

Tej Singh: Is there any type of global council that you’re aware of where people are communicating across states, across countries where you can centralize a lot of these techniques and information?

Jordan Ambrogi: The IPCC—I want to say it’s the Interdisciplinary Panel for Climate Change—they produce the major studies that give you the forecasted warming; x number of degrees Celsius over the next 50 years. That research is put out by the IPCC. That’s the international body that produces that climate change information.

Philip Charlton: From your observations, are you seeing any changes that you are detecting in the utility forest, any species starting to look more stressed than others?

Jordan Ambrogi: That’s the other element of the climate change issue that is not so obvious is the pests, the insects, their life cycles are a lot longer now, and they are more prolific. So, we are seeing a lot of insect problems. Lodgepole pine beetle’s an issue. Tussock moth is a defoliator, and that’s one that will take out entire hillsides of trees. Fortunately, the Ponderosa bark beetle has not been too aggressive for us in our territory, but we still get that here and there as well, so that’s an issue, too.

Tej Singh: This has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you today. Thanks for taking the time. Again, your background is so unique. Is there anything you’d like to leave for our audience in terms of awareness or understanding of the area of focus in wildfire mitigation? Is there something that you can leave for the people?

Jordan Ambrogi: The only parting message I would have, if you are responsible for wildfire mitigation at your utility, leave no stone unturned. That’s my motto. It doesn’t hurt to look. It doesn’t hurt to read about or to talk to somebody about. Take a meeting, see a demo, what have you. Explore all your options because it’s a multifaceted problem, and there are a lot of difficult challenges to be solved. We really can’t afford to be lackadaisical about it.

Philip Charlton: Your very first answer was study. You did it personally; study, read, listen, just good advice.

Jordan Ambrogi: Yeah, absolutely.

Tej Singh: Thank you for joining us today.

Jordan Ambrogi: Thank you so much for having me.

Tej Singh: It was a fascinating conversation. We appreciate it. Thanks, Jordan.

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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