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Episode 39: How Tech is Changing Vegetation Management w/ Jason Grossman

Episode 39: How Tech is Changing Vegetation Management w/ Jason Grossman

Welcome to the 39th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 39

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Jason Grossman, Manager of Vegetation Management for Liberty Utilities.

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

Episode 39 Transcript

Philip Charlton: Very good. We’re still broadcasting from the Trees and Utilities conference on the trade show floor. We are excited right now to have Jason Grossman with us. Jason, I appreciate your taking the time.

Tej Singh: Thanks, Jason.

Jason Grossman: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here. It’s been a pretty good conference, with a lot of great presentations and a lot of great connections and sharing going on.

Philip Charlton: Before we get started, can you just give us a little bit about you and the company you’re working for? What do you do?

Jason Grossman: I’m the Manager of Vegetation Management for Liberty Utilities in the Central Region. I’ve been there for 15 years in-house and then for two years as a contractor as well. That’s where I got my feet wet in the utility vegetation management industry. I really liked it quite a bit. It just grew on me. Over the years, I progressed from distribution coordinator to transmission coordinator and then eventually to manager of the program.

Philip Charlton: Okay, so you’re manager of T&D now?

Jason Grossman: Yes, we’ve got about 1,200 miles of transmission and 5,400 miles of distribution.

Philip Charlton: This week, you joined an elite crowd by receiving the right-of-way steward accreditation recognition. Congratulations, I know how hard that is.

Tej Singh: Congratulations. It’s a big deal.

Jason Grossman: Thanks, guys. It’s definitely a great program to be a part of, and we’re just continuing to push the industry forward.

Philip Charlton: Tell us a little bit: why did you seek the accreditation?

Jason Grossman: I think it was a validation of our program. We’ve been working hard and doing a lot of unique things on our system, and this was just a way for us to signify to our upper management and say, we’ve done a great job. We’re getting an award. It’s also helping us with our sustainability reporting. It’s just a great recognition for the stewardship of managing right of ways.

Philip Charlton: It’s not easy to get, though, is it?

Jason Grossman: No, it’s not. I’d almost say it’s probably been the culmination of several years to get to this point. We struggled early on. When I started, we were in heavy reclamation mode, and we’ve really fine-tuned our program through data analysis, just visual observations, readjusting, and then maintaining and doing pretty cool stuff, I think.

Philip Charlton: How has management responded to the recognition?

Jason Grossman: They like it, especially our environmental team. They’ve really pushed that message and promoted it in press releases. It’s been really good, with very positive feedback from upper management.

Philip Charlton: One of the things I’ve noticed consistently about right-of-way stewards is how they engage. It’s not just the VM department. They actively engage the environmental and the lands department.

Jason Grossman: We’ve got a good environmental department, land management, and even our procurement department is involved in the strategy that we have for contracts, so it’s a great process.

Tej Singh: Jason, tell us a little bit about the specific geographic footprint that you’re responsible for and some of the localized challenges that you have to deal with from a vegetation management perspective.

Jason Grossman: The southwest quarter of Missouri is where we occupy, but we also go into Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. We have some regulatory requirements from all four states, which is always fun. We base most of our stuff out of Missouri because that’s where the bulk of our customer load is.

Tej Singh: You’re neighbors to Ameren, right?

Jason Grossman: There’s a little bit of separation between us and Ameren, but KCP&L, we bought up to them—or not KCP&L, Evergy now, then down in AEP for Northeast Oklahoma.

Tej Singh: Okay, very interesting.

Philip Charlton: Explain the geographic area or the ecosystem in there. When I think of Missouri, Kansas, I think of the flat grasslands, but I don’t think that’s this area, is it?

Jason Grossman: Well, a little bit. We go into some prairie area just on the flatness. There was a guy from a community college in Kansas who did an electron-scanning micrograph of a pancake. The little micro-ridges in the pancake, he extrapolated that up to the actual size of Kansas and determined that Kansas was actually flatter than a pancake. But it is fairly hilly. There’s some ravines and then some mountain ranges, too. We’re in that prairie area, where the Ozark Mountains meet. If you ran a diagonal line from the southwest corner to the northeast corner, the north half of that would be prairie, and the south half is going to be Ozark Mountains.

Philip Charlton: How big a team do you have running this?

Jason Grossman: We currently have three. I have an office coordinator and two distribution coordinators, east and west.

Philip Charlton: What is your background before you were in utility veg management?

Jason Grossman: I graduated from Oklahoma State in 2005. I did a short stint on a fish farm managing aquatic vegetation management, which came into play a little bit last month when we started talking about the generation side there having some issues, but pretty much just straight from college into vegetation management. Like I said, I liked it, so I stuck around and hung out.

Philip Charlton: In college, have you ever heard of utility veg management?

Jason Grossman: No, I hadn’t. I got a degree in environmental science, and it was nestled under the forestry department, but most of that was timber production, silviculture, dendrology, just that kind of stuff. I just stumbled into it by accident. In Missouri, we had an ice storm in 2008. They came down with some legislation, and that forced a lot of the IOUs in the state at that time to expand their vegetation management department, get on a cycle, and start to maintain the things a lot better than what they had.

Tej Singh: The right of way stewardship award and that acknowledgment and recognition—there’s not that many utilities in the U.S. that have secured that. You’re on this high goals for your program now. You strike me as somebody who’s continuing to refine the program and tighten things. What are some of the things that you want to continue to focus on to bring improvements to the way you guys approach the system?

Jason Grossman: We’re really getting into data analytics, and it’s really fine tuning our program at this point. We’ve got all the low-hanging fruit. We’re looking for 1% and 2% improvements. We’ve started a monitoring program for biodiversity where we’re checking that, and then we’re also comparing it to the maintenance activities that we did. We’ve got three years worth of data now, and we’re starting to see some interesting trends.

Three years obviously doesn’t really tell us a whole lot; there could be a lot of different variables in that, but I think if we can get that set up and maintain that long-term, I’d really like to have more examples of burns and brambles across the country. That’s the mecca for vegetation management, but is it repeatable in other regions, other areas, and other ecosystems? That’s where I’d like to take that and just see what we can do and figure out how our management activities are affecting biodiversity.

Philip Charlton: Tell us about the biodiversity reporting. Are you participating with others, or is that an internal thing?

Jason Grossman: It’s an internal deal. As part of the award, we’ve done a lot of training with our contractors, so now they’re really educated and knowledgeable in identifying species and knowing what we want to target and what we want to keep. That targeted application of the herbicide is really helping with the biodiversity numbers and figuring out what we have as a baseline and then being able to compare that.

We’ve got set locations around our transmission system. We’re inventorying those the year before maintenance, so year zero, and then we’re skipping the year of maintenance, and we’re going back and inventorying them year two, year three, year four, and year five on a six-year cycle so that we’ll have that continual data to build on, same spot, same location every year at around the same time.

Philip Charlton: How many sites are you doing?

Jason Grossman: We’re trying to get to six-year. Well, we’ve got six-year, but we’re continually ramping up every year. We add on to another. We’re on year four. Four times six is 24, so we’ve got 24 sites currently. We’ve also got a few others around where we’re doing substations. We’ve stopped mowing there. We’ve converted that into a pollinator habitat through the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund. We’re basically trying to get out and do some work by putting flowers in.

Philip Charlton: Let the plants do it for you.

Jason Grossman: Right. We spend a lot of money mowing around substations, and we just go out there and plant flowers and let them grow and be very influential on the pollinator habitat.

Tej Singh: How active are you in communicating with the utilities and other utilities in your region and sharing best practices? Is that something that you’re able to do or that anyone within Liberty, like some of your counterparts in other parts of the country? Do you guys have a lot of good cross-communication?

Jason Grossman: Currently, we have been meeting monthly with my other counterparts in New Hampshire and in Tahoe. That’s switched to weekly with some other stuff that’s going on integration-wise. We also have a regional meeting with a lot of the co-ops in our area, so pretty much the whole of southwest Missouri. We’re going to get together two weeks from now, have a meeting, and discuss a lot of stuff. Then, regionally, with the other IOUs in the area, we have an annual meeting. Most of us in the state of Missouri are pretty good buddies. We come to these shows, we hang out, and we drink beer. We have a pretty good relationship there, and any time we need something, we can just call up and say, hey, what are you guys doing about this?

It’s a good region to be in. Everybody knows everybody. I just met a guy today; his counterpart retired. He’s the new manager at Independence Power and Light. Everybody knows everyone; it’s friendly.

Philip Charlton: It’s a great industry, isn’t it?

Jason Grossman: It is and very open to share.

Philip Charlton: Your neighboring co-ops probably don’t have the resources you guys have, so are you willing to share with them and help them and guide them in IVM?

Jason Grossman: We’re actually working on a deal where we can share contractors around there. I don’t know that it’s necessarily going to work out great, but I think when we have a vendor that’s servicing an area, if there’s more resources available to share amongst, if we need to take some crews for a while or we need to shift some off, we’ve actually done that with one of the municipalities in the area. We share some vendors, and occasionally they have budget issues and need to get rid of them. Sometimes we have budget issues, and we need to shift them over. It’s great having those same vendors and having that relationship to be able to manipulate stuff as you need.

Philip Charlton: There’s a lot of coordination to make that happen, but that’s a cool idea.

Jason Grossman: Most of it’s just, hey, I need to get rid of these crews for a month. Can you take them? I can take them for two weeks. All right, take them. It’s pretty easy. It’s a little bit more complicated, but fairly simple in that aspect.

Tej Singh: In your history and in your footprint, have you been tasked with any major challenges? The conditions in Hawaii, California, and Florida, they’re more storm hit. I’m guessing tornadoes may be part of your challenge.

Jason Grossman: We had the tornado that hit Joplin in 2011, and that one was pretty devastating from a rebuild perspective—psychologically terrible, devastating.

Philip Charlton: Is ice a big thing there?

Jason Grossman: I was just telling somebody, we haven’t had an ice storm in a while.

Philip Charlton: No, I didn’t say that.

Jason Grossman: I think 2007 was when we had two in the same year, and that’s what led the state of Missouri to come through with a lot of the regulations in 2008 that I mentioned earlier. Tornadoes and fires don’t really affect us a whole lot. As you get a little further out into Oklahoma, they do have some wildfire issues out there. We’ve actually used prescribed burning to manage some vegetation on the right of way. We see it as a tool. It’s not the one and only, but it’s got its place.

Tej Singh: Is it difficult for you to add anybody to your team from the University of Oklahoma?

Jason Grossman: It is for me, yes. As a matter of fact, when I started, there was a line ops manager down in Neosho. He had a little shrine of OU. I walked in, and I had to give him crap right off the start. I was like, you know that’s the second best school in the state, right? He was like, what are you talking about? I was like, I went to OSU, but luckily, I had a high school buddy who played for OU, so yeah, great.

Tej Singh: You’ve been able to bridge the gap a little bit.

Jason Grossman: I was. I bridged the gap with him, so it worked out all right. But yes, I do have that difficulty. It seems like customers who are OU fans typically might give us a bit more of a problem.

Tej Singh: I think you mentioned in your journey that, at one point, you owned distribution, then you owned transmission, and now you own both for your region. Is that the pinnacle point for someone with your background? What would be the next step? What do you report into power delivery? What is the next step for an advancement for someone who’s essentially owning that part of the portfolio?

Jason Grossman: That’s a really good question. I’ve branched out to the gas operations, so we’ve been doing some work on the northern parts of Missouri. We’re also looking at the east part. We’ve got some lines that run pretty much from the Bootheel up towards Saint Louis and Ameren. I think we’ve got some other little operations in Iowa and a little bit in Illinois as well. That’s an interesting frontier. I think that it’s a new one and a challenge for me. I did mention, too, that the generation side has reached out to us down at Lake Taneycomo. They’ve got some aquatic vegetation issues, so they’re seeking some help. They’ve got a pretty good plan put together. Like I said, I started out in fisheries management doing vegetation management there, so that’s been nice. The synapses we find in the brain from 20+ years ago are also good.

Philip Charlton: Are you still on fisheries management, fish on weekends?

Jason Grossman: I don’t fish nearly as much as I used to, but yes, I used to go every weekend, and I could count the number of weekends I didn’t go on one hand, and now I count the number of weekends I do go on one hand.

Tej Singh: Do you mind sharing a little career guidance for maybe some of our younger viewers who are starting out their careers in vegetation management? How would you steer them and guide them? How would you encourage them?

Jason Grossman: I would say to find your passion. There’s something in vegetation management, whether it’s working outdoors, doing the numbers, or using technology. If you had asked me 15 years ago if we’d be working with artificial intelligence, robot mowers, augmented reality, and prescribed burns, there’s a niche in vegetation management somewhere for everybody, and it’s finding that passion and then just exploring it and being curious.

Tej Singh: I like that. It’s great.

Philip Charlton: We’ve been asking everybody that, and it’s this idea that you can’t plan it out. Just look for the opportunities and the things you’re interested in, and go for them.

Jason Grossman: I would probably agree with that. I think if you did try and plan it out, there’s always something that’s going to throw a monkey wrench in it; you have to adjust. I don’t know that I was ever one of those people who just planned, and I definitely didn’t plan on coming into utility vegetation management. It just landed in my lap, and I liked it and pursued it, and I’m here today.

Tej Singh: In terms of your footprint, you have a different problem set to solve than someone in California, Florida, or Italy, right? But if I said, Jason, I’m taking you and I’m dropping you in a hot wildfire zone, and you’re now running transmission and distribution, and you’ve got to now get your arms around that and fix it and deal with it, etc. Is that something that excites you—exploring your discipline but with a different set of conditions?

Jason Grossman: Yes. I like the challenges, but there’s so many variables that go into that, like what kind of resources do you have to be able to manage that? Everybody’s got an opinion, too. I’m really good about sharing my opinions, even when they’re not asked for. But I think a lot of times, you have to remove yourself as well. Step back and take a look at the situation, look at what’s been done, and then figure out: What’s the real problem? What do we need to do? How do we get there?

So, yes, I would like it. It would be a challenge, and I think it’d be interesting to do that. Are you guys thinking about having a reality show or something?

Tej Singh: That’s actually a great idea. Do you ever communicate with your alma mater? I think you said you had an environmental science background—and go back and work with the professors and introduce maybe an elective that says, hey, as part of environmental science or as part of this discipline, here’s a path and here’s a subject matter we should be getting you guys thinking about. Is there any of that relationship with the school?

Jason Grossman: Oddly enough, Oklahoma State did start a utility vegetation management class a few years ago. I’d heard that through the grapevine. I haven’t participated in it, but I did think about reaching out and saying, hey, do you need a guest speaker or somebody to come down? I’d like to go down and eat at Eskimo Joe’s again and get some cheese fries.

Philip Charlton: I really would like to encourage everybody out there. We have an industry that we all love, but not very many of us go back and do that.

Jason Grossman: Right.

Philip Charlton: I think we ought to go back and share that with the kids coming out of college now.

Jason Grossman: I’ve seen a couple of videos from Oklahoma State with my advisor on them, too, so I know he’s still there. I’m sure there’s a couple of the other old professors that were really old when I was there still teaching as well, so it’d be nice.

Tej Singh: Jason, it was an absolute pleasure. Congratulations, and I really enjoyed our chat. Fantastic. Thanks for making time.

Jason Grossman: Thanks for having me.

Philip Charlton: I think they’re going to kick us out here, and that was the last announcement.

Jason Grossman: Yeah, I know. It sounds like it, doesn’t it?

Tej Singh: What was awesome was you talking to us because we started it with classes, which is awesome.

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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