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Episode 41: Understanding Biodiversity in Right-of-Way Corridors w/ Matt Goff

Episode 41: Understanding Biodiversity in Right-of-Way Corridors w/ Matt Goff

Welcome to the 41st Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management​

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 41

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Matt Goff, Transmission Vegetation Manager at Georgia Power and the Utility Arborist Association‘s President-Elect.

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

Episode 41 Transcript

Tej Singh: Welcome back to Trees and Lines at Trees and Utilities. We’re here on the floor chatting with Mr. Matt Goff from Georgia Power. Thanks, Matt, for joining us.

Matt Goff: Thanks for having me.

Tej Singh: Matt is the head of vegetation management for the transmission side of the business and also president-elect for the UAA, so congratulations–

Matt Goff: Thank you.

Tej Singh: –and a speaker here, so pretty cool.

Philip Charlton: First, give us your background so people know who you are, and then we’ll talk about your presentation coming up.

Matt Goff: Thanks for having me. It’s an honor to be on the podcast. I guess my journey started a long time ago. I’ll start to date myself, but I graduated from the University of Georgia as a forester. I entered the industry in, I guess, what you would call traditional forestry, and I worked for a timber procurement company. That was my job: procuring timber for a sawmill. I moved around most of Georgia and lived in a lot of different places in the state of Georgia, pursuing that career for several years. I had an opportunity to come back home and ended up competing for a job at Georgia Power and getting that job.

But like most every utility forester I’ve met, I found this industry by accident. There was no plan for me to come out of school and be a utility forester. Hopefully, one day, we can change that. I was actually riding from the woods; I had been cruising timber all morning, going to the mill to deal with the mill business. I ended up seeing someone on the side of the road that I thought needed help, so I slowed down my vehicle. As I approached the site, I recognized the person. I was like, I know that person, so I pulled over.

This is in middle-of-nowhere Georgia, so I pulled over, and it was my college friend from forestry school, and he was in a Georgia Power truck. I was like, what are you doing working for Georgia Power? I thought you went to forester school. I know you did. You went with me. One thing led to another, and he gave me the connection to put in my resume, so I did that. It was like a year or two later before I finally got the call, hey, we want you to come interview. I got the job and moved back to Atlanta, and I still live there today with my wife and two daughters.

Philip Charlton: One of our guests said, don’t plan out your career too specifically because it doesn’t go according to plan.

Matt Goff: Yes.

Tej Singh: You’re like, no, that’s exactly true.

Matt Goff: That is true.

Philip Charlton: You were a forester, and I was a forester. We used to always have everybody as a forester in our industry.

Tej Singh: I’ve gotten to know Matt a little bit through the industry. I’ve asked him this question, and he gave a very nice and simple explanation. There’s always a little bit of confusion about the difference between an arborist and a forester. How do you think of the two different titles, and what’s the difference?

Matt Goff: A personal story: I’ve gone full circle in that space of what I call myself. Obviously, when I started out working in traditional forestry, it was easy to see myself as a forester. What you learn there is that you have objectives. You have all the stakeholders that are involved—the landowner, the environmental state regulations, all that stuff—that you have to balance. But my job as a forester is to connect with my landowner and find out what they want out of their property. Then I take all of these variables and synthesize a strategy for them to achieve that, and then we follow that plan.

As the variables change over time, you have to adjust your plan. The difference an arborist takes that I’ve come to believe is that they will take each tree and evaluate that tree at its location, how it’s doing, how it’s responding, what’s influencing it, and what’s impacting it. What are its symptoms? What does it look like? But it’s only focused on that tree.

The big difference is the analogy that we discussed the other day. I love to eat. I’m a big foodie. I love to experiment with different kinds of food. I love to spend time with my friends and coworkers and just talk shop over a meal. A restaurant is a great analogy to explain the difference between an arborist and a forester. I see it as the arborist being more like a specific worker in the restaurant, like maybe the hostess or the waiter or waitress. Their very specific job is to take care of their table. If you’re the waitress or waiter, your job is to take care of the table and make sure that the guests at that table have the best experience they can.

A forester is more like the restaurant manager. They have to have an understanding of what’s going on in the kitchen. They have to have an inventory of the food and ingredients, all the spices, all that stuff, all the way down to the napkins and silverware. They have to make sure all that fits so that collectively everyone that comes into that restaurant has the same experience that the waiter is working on or the waitress is working to achieve at that table. They’re at the same place in the same environment. They’re all in the same restaurant, but they have different roles. That’s the best way I’ve come to explain it.

Tej Singh: That’s a good explanation because, honestly, I’ll be the first to admit I get confused sometimes because I use them more interchangeably than I should. It dawned on me when we were chatting the other day. I’m not sure I fully understand all the nuances, Matt. Maybe you can tell me, though. That’s very helpful. Thank you.

Philip Charlton: Matt’s thought it through more than most of us. Whatever, call me what you want. But you’re right. In your transmission, that makes a difference.

Matt Goff: That’s right. I had an experience in my career where, probably about ten years ago, we took a look at all of our job titles at our company across all the electric affiliates that our company is associated with. We found that we had, I think it was like 27 different possible titles for the same job. We thought, let’s standardize that. We’re going to make this more efficient. Well, what do we call ourselves?

We had a committee and subcommittee, and we were debating it back and forth, and we settled on utility arborists. But flash forward to today; some ten years after that, I probably see myself more as a forester. I don’t know; maybe that’s the influence of my job, managing a system versus managing a line or a corridor. But I really see the importance of staying in touch with what our stakeholders are asking us to do: the public, environmentalists, both bill-paying customers and non-bill-paying customers, because in transmission, that’s the unique aspect of our line of work: from sub to sub, we cross a lot of different landowners. Not every one of them is paying us a bill. We’re not making revenue off them, but we still have to treat them in the same way. Being able to bring all that in, I guess the analogy starts to make more sense when you think of yourself more as the general manager and not that specific task problem solver.

Tej Singh: One thing I’m obviously very impressed with you about is just your—of course, Phil has lived this life as a former executive director of the UAA and is taking on a leadership role in a very meaningful organization. As a president-elect, first of all, why were you so passionate about involving yourself with the UAA and taking on leadership roles? What do you hope to accomplish? What is your motivation for joining the organization?

Matt Goff: That’s another good question.

Philip Charlton: It’s your second time around, right?

Matt Goff: Well, I did a tour duty as a director. That’s how I got started. You don’t always find what you’re looking for, but things that you need have a way of finding you. I just so happened to have the opportunity to attend my first Trees and Utilities, which was in Kansas City. I met Phil, and Phil didn’t know that we’d be sitting here today. Neither one of us did, though.

Philip Charlton: UVMA, Neil Thiessen was probably who you met.

Tej Singh: That’s the Canadian side?

Matt Goff: Yes.

Philip Charlton: Sister organization.

Matt Goff: He was there, and he had his program about professional utility vegetation management; that credential was just getting off. It just clicked with me as a way to validate what we’re doing—that we are the experts. I got involved that way, met Phil, decided to run for the director position, and really had a lot of good opportunities to meet other people who saw the UAA’s potential to advance our business, to explain to people, to champion what we do, and to bring that awareness to the importance of what we’re doing.

I mentioned before that almost every forester I’ve talked to has found this industry by accident; we should change that. This organization, this association, has the potential to lobby for that and bring that awareness. It just clicked for me to want to help and be part of that.

Tej Singh: Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Philip Charlton: You were the first graduating class of the professional development program?

Matt Goff: Second.

Tej Singh: Let’s talk a little bit about Georgia Power and maybe some of the unique challenges that you guys face with your system. Because you’re involved in the UAA, you also have reach outside of your state, with, of course, Phil and his peer group and other foresters that are leading other utilities. Tell us a little bit about the risk profile in the system, things that keep you up at night, and how you utilize your peer groups to solve problems that you bring back to your home state.

Matt Goff: I’ll start with I guess, the end first. the peer groups and the people that you meet at these kind of events at the Trees and Utilities and through committees on the UAA, they are dealing with the same problems. It’s very much, I’ve come to realize, risk management, risk awareness. How do I categorize my risk once I know what it is? What are my options to defend against that? How can I put my action plan in place? Then you rinse and repeat, and you’re constantly trying to reassess that risk.

When I started at utility business, the veg folks were seen as a faucet. If you need to divest funds, you open a faucet. If you need to curtail spending, you close it. That was our life. We responded to that. Today, through the UAA and through technology and through people sharing ideas that are here in this conference, you can not see that as a surprise, but you can have a plan for it.

You can have a plan for the upside. You can have a plan for the downside, and in reality, you operate somewhere in between. That fit with me as a forester because when I was doing forestry, a timber harvest schedule was 30 years, 40 years long. That’s a long time before you realize all the inputs that you outlaid.

The same things for the right-of-way corridor. It has a very long life. They teach you how to be a utility forester in forestry school, they just don’t call it that. But they give you all the skills you need. That’s what made me want to be a part of this organization is just to raise that awareness.

Philip Charlton: Tell us a little bit about your presentation. Is it tomorrow?

Matt Goff: On Wednesday.

Philip Charlton: That’s the way these things go.

Tej Singh: What are you going to be focusing on?

Matt Goff: I am co-presenting with a person I’ve known in the business for a long time, Darrell Russell at Corteva. The topic is called Building Biological Barriers. We have, I think a four or five year study going on in two of our right-of-way corridors in Georgia where we’ve been comparing the before and after results of different types of chemistries that we put out to control non-desirables.

In a nutshell, it’s basically our older chemistries we call broad spectrum, they act on a wide array of species. They’re pretty nonselective. Selective chemistries is very much targeted on certain types of plants and has less impact or reduced impact on the compatible species. We wanted to see in the real world, what happens when you use the two beside each other? We started a project in 2020 and we’re still going on, measuring the research.

Philip Charlton: Are you presenting results?

Matt Goff: Yes.

Philip Charlton: Can you give us a little recap?

Tej Singh: A sneak peek or are we crushing your vibe?

Philip Charlton: Well, actually this won’t go out until after your presentation, so you’re not letting it out of the bag yet.

Matt Goff: No. Well, this doesn’t preclude you from showing up Wednesday, right?

Tej Singh: You’re like, hey, guys, show up.

Philip Charlton: It’s on our calendar.

Matt Goff: Somebody has to come and ring.

Tej Singh: Yeah, I’m coming.

Matt Goff: The results are very encouraging. I’m very happy with what we’ve got so far. The UAA has a great tool out on the website, the IVM calculator. You can go and you put in some costs and all, and you can forecast what different strategies might cost, what the benefits are. I highly recommend people check that out.

One of the knocks of the newer chemistry can be that it costs more. It’s more expensive material wise, and you can at least initially when you’re transferring from nonselective, you are going to use a little bit more per acre. You’ve got more material costs, more acreage. You use more and it costs more, so that’s a double whammy.

But in the end, what we’re finding in our study so far is the species counts of the non-desirables continue to decline over time. The species counts of the desirable plants are increasing over time. We’re actually approaching our second treatment cycle in the study in 2024. This may be something I can talk about down the road, but we’re already seeing that the bad stuff is going down. There’s less of the bad stuff, non-permissible, whatever you want to call it, more of the good stuff. From a risk management perspective, we’re seeing that it’s worth it. If the species count of the non-desirables continues to drop, we fully expect to recover our investment to convert. We outlaid an investment to spend more in order to save more. Ultimately, we hope that we could even consider extending our mowing cycles out beyond what they currently are.

Tej Singh: I was going to ask you, I was going to shift gears and put pressure on you. If you had to make one dish since I know you’re a big foodie, what’s your go-to dish? What are you making for us? Mofongo.

Philip Charlton: I hope it doesn’t have eel in it because I remember that meal.

Tej Singh: Matt has an incredibly diverse palate.

Matt Goff: He does not eat unagi, no. If I had time, so are you dropping in or I got advance notice?

Tej Singh: You got advance notice.

Matt Goff: I love Cuban food; it’s one of my favorites. I’ve gotten obsessed with making mojo, which is a Cuban-based marinade, and I’ve got a really good one. I would make my mojo, and I would marinate some shrimp in it and then grill them.

Tej Singh: Incredible.

Matt Goff: It would be fantastic.

Tej Singh: I might’ve put you to the test on that.

Philip Charlton: I’m pretty good to drink mojitos. Does that count?

Tej Singh: Matt, I know you guys are doing some really cool things down your neck of the woods and on your system. I know you’re always trying to push the limit. What is something that you’re really passionate about introducing to your program or your system, whether it’s a technology, a process, or a different way of thinking? I know that you’re so committed to refining and improving all the time. Is there something that has really been on your mind lately and something that you’re trying to focus on fine-tuning?

Matt Goff: Yes. I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain this or to talk about this without getting on my soapbox, but I might get on one.

Philip Charlton: That’s okay.

Tej Singh: We need a soapbox.

Matt Goff: Having our industry value the corridor, the right-of-way as an asset in the same way that they currently value the poles and wires. The space that those poles and wires occupy—the corridor, the right-of-way, the easement, whatever you want to call it—is just as valuable for the proper delivery and the safe delivery of those electrons as anything. I think if we can come to define it that way, we may even be able to get different accounting treatments for the work we’re doing.

Assets can be depreciated, and they can have a depreciation schedule that FERC and NERC and all the other regulators will recognize. I think once the industry says this is our asset, this is where we work, this space at the edge of the easement where the limbs come in and we cut them back and to the other side and up as tall as you want to go, that is an asset. It has value. We paid for it. You acquired the easement rights, or you bought the land. It has value. That’s one of the only things that I can think of in our business that we pay that money for that we don’t consider an asset.

Tej Singh: I had a similar conversation with Stan Vera-Art, who shared with me and articulated, not quite the same, but very much like thinking of that right-of-way, that corridor, as an asset.

Matt Goff: This is the forester in me. It’s like, now that I have you thinking of this corridor as an asset, I need to understand what you want me to do with it. How do you want me to manage it? When we get to where we’re going, it’s not going to be an accident; it’s going to be a plan.

I think that’s what I was taught in forestry school. Thankfully, in my career, I’ve been in this business long enough to just come back around and think of it that way again. Maybe what was old is new again. I guess that is my way of thinking, but you finally have enough experience to realize that. But once we can come together to realize that something worth valuing has a value, a depreciation schedule, and a definition, then we can start applying traditional forestry and get to where we’re going.

Philip Charlton: Outside of your peers, are others at the company receptive to that discussion?

Matt Goff: I’m still working on influencing that, but I think that’s one of the things that I love most about the UAA: I believe that this is the organization that can drive that message from the top down and not wait for it to organically just spread. I’m not that patient.

Philip Charlton: No, that’s right. That’ll be very slow.

Tej Singh: What comes to mind when you describe it that way is a proactive approach when you own an asset versus a depreciating asset. It’s a very different mindset in terms of how you tackle what you have.

Philip Charlton: It’s an asset you’re managing. It’s just not a cost.

Matt Goff: That’s right. It’s just not a cost. It’s not a cost sink. It’s something that if I want to achieve the results that I define as if I stand in front of stakeholders or shareholders and say, this is what we’re going to do to deliver value, to pay our dividends, to meet our earnings per share goal, it’s a part of that now. It’s a factor in that now. It’s not just a way to save money or spend money. It’s not a liability anymore.

Tej Singh: It’s more than a line item.

Matt Goff: Sorry, I told you I’d get on my soapbox.

Philip Charlton: That’s okay.

Tej Singh: This forum that we’ve created to talk to industry thought leaders and bring all different types of perspectives together—that’s what this is for—so that we can engage in discussions and collectively create good solutions to think of these corridors and these assets across the country and across the world as assets. I think it’s really exciting that you’re thinking of it that way and taking on leadership roles outside of your core job to champion that.

Philip Charlton: Matt’s always good at pushing forward. You do things better at Georgia Power, and you do things better for the industry. We appreciate it.

Matt Goff: Thank you, guys.

Tej Singh: Well, thanks for doing it, Matt. I’m sure I’m going to bug you again for doing another one where we can dive in a little deeper on some other topics.

Matt Goff: I just appreciate the opportunity, and I’m honored to have the invitation to spend time talking shop with you guys. This is something I care very much about, very deeply. I’m very passionate about my business. I’m lucky to have a job—a career that energizes me that way. Not everyone can say that. But I’m fortunate enough to have found what I’m supposed to be doing, and there’s a great group of people here to help me do it even better.

Tej Singh: No, it’s fantastic. Thank you again, and we’ll do this again.

Matt Goff: Yeah, no problem.

Philip Charlton: Thanks, Matt.

Tej Singh: 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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