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Episode 43: How UVM Can Reduce Risk & Increase Reliability w/ Kamran Rasheed

Episode 43: How Vegetation Management Can Reduce Risk & Increase Reliability w/ Kamran Rasheed

Welcome to the 43rd Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 43

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Kamran Rasheed, Director of Vegetation Asset Strategy & Analytics at Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E).

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

Episode 43 Transcript

Tej Singh: Welcome to our last episode of Trees and Lines at the Trees and Utilities Conference. We’re super excited to have Kamran Rasheed. He’s a director in vegetation, strategy, and analytics at PG&E. Thank you for joining us, Kamran.

Kamran Rasheed: You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Tej Singh: Kamran, tell us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about your background. Let’s get to know you a little bit with the audience.

Kamran Rasheed: My name is Kamran Rasheed, and I have a master’s degree in forestry from Pakistan. then I did multiple certifications, including ISA certified, utility specialist track qualified by ISA, and safety certifications CUSP and CTSP. I did a few other certifications. I’m not going to go on all of those.

I started my journey in utility vegetation management in 2001 as a utility forester. Some people call them utility arborists. Nowadays, some people call them utility vegetation management inspectors. But all the same, basically, planners are planning the work ahead of the tree crews. Since then, I’ve been learning and doing this job and have worked as a supervisor, a manager, and an operations manager. Now I’m a director of vegetation asset strategy and analytics.

In between, I stood up a lot of vegetation programs, such as what we call the CEMA Program, a tree mortality program in California. I stood up in 2014.

Tej Singh: I know you were also a speaker here at the conference; is that right?

Kamran Rasheed: Yes, that’s right.

Tej Singh: What were you focused on here? What was your topic?

Kamran Rasheed: My topic was business acumen. One of the colleagues reached out and said that a lot of people in our industry are always complaining about their budget, not having a budget, and not being able to put their business case to say what needed to happen. Then I started thinking, yes, that is one of the things we can help with, or at least share our ideas on how we can do this.

The main focus of the topic was when our lot of industry leaders come from the ranks, from pre-inspection companies, or from tree work. They are very good at identifying the trees and getting the tree work done, but sometimes struggle to bring the value and the business case to the management and to the decision-makers to present what is going to be and what the benefit of it is..

That was the key focus—letting them know you needed to be very clear. You need to have a business case. You need to put together all your operational plans. Then you need to say what this program is going to do. how this is going to reduce the risks, such as wildfire risk, and how this is going to bring reliability, public safety, help the infrastructure not fail in adverse weather, and the list goes on.

Every utility can be a different driver if they can bring my colleagues and myself to present like this is the benefit I am bringing, and then the decision makers are making the decision because they have a full portfolio within the utility, they have a construction, they have a maintenance, they have a substation, they have an undergrounding, they have a generation, a long list. Now they’re making a budget. This way, you can have a fair analysis put on the table to make sure decision-makers are fully informed of which risk you are going to lower, maintain, or mitigate.

Philip Charlton: Our natural tendency when we seek continuing education is to educate ourselves in the stuff we like and know, when we should educate ourselves in what will make us successful, which is sometimes questions.

Kamran Rasheed: That is very true. That was my very first slide, going from a doer or a subject matter expert going to a manager or a leader, how to transition. Now you put on a little bit of a different hat. You are not going to be looking at the trees all day and prescribing. Now you’re facilitating and paving the path for your team to mitigate the risk.

To do that, you need to have stakeholders on board—other departments, communities, and environmental organizations. You need everybody—internal and external stakeholders. You got to learn that skill, build that muscle, as we all said, and you’re just shifting. At the same time, what you acquired in your early life as an expert about the trees and the forest would be very handy from time to time. But at the same time, you are in a little bit of a different world. You’re facilitating the work to get it done..

Tej Singh: Was that a natural transition for you, or did it take some time for you to make that adjustment?

Kamran Rasheed: For me, I think the transition started a little bit earlier. I was lucky because when I was doing my pre-inspection job, I got promoted after a few years to be operations manager under another consulting company. When I was that, I was given an area and I needed to keep it compliant, work with the client, and, at the same time, be profitable, so I put my case in front of a client on pricing and everything. My education started on this, I will say, around 2005. I was one of the lucky ones, I can say. Sometimes, it can be quick.

The other thing is that when I did my master’s and there was a subject about accounting and public policy, some educational background helped me as well and additionally kept coming when I joined my utility. I work for Pacific Gas and Electric right now, and I got the opportunity to stand up a few of the programs. That helped me, especially with tree mortality, to put the risk on the table and let my upper management and the stakeholders at the state and local levels know that this is going to take this much effort. It helped. I will not say it is a natural transition, but I think the scenarios helped me get better at it.

Tej Singh: We’re all watching the very unfortunate events unfold in Maui. PG&E has, over the last several years, had to deal with a lot of very complex issues, etc. But that’s allowed you guys to really grow and develop and really become very innovative and forward-thinking on the wildfire risk mitigation side of things. Have other utilities that are now dealing with wildfires reached out to you guys in a mentorship capacity where you can share learnings and strategies to help them navigate what they’re going through at the moment?

Kamran Rasheed: Definitely. First of all, a very tragic incident. I’m still watching it and praying for everybody’s safety and well-being there. Environmental changes are affecting everybody on the globe. Some parts of the world are getting affected more, relatively speaking.

I was in Australia, so I got invited there to their arbor national conference to talk about our journey and how we are adjusting. The topic we discussed with one of my other colleagues was adaptive vegetation management and how we need to adapt. We cannot continue to do what we used to do. We need to adapt. The environment is changing. Tree mortalities are going at a different level, and as the weather conditions change, patterns are changing. The direct answer is that other utilities are reaching out to us. Definitely, they are reaching out to us.

We are reaching out to the other ones too. I was making a lot of connections here to understand how everybody is doing and what people are seeing. One thing I will say is that even in my presentation, I dedicated one of the slides to benchmarking. Don’t feel like you know everything or that you need to know everything. We are human beings. A lot of industry leaders are there. We need to learn from their experience and what they’ve dealt with, and then put the pieces together. You can travel. Nowadays, with technology, you can do meetings online or even send an email questionnaire. I use all of those, and some other utilities are doing with us too, so we are learning together from each other.

Tej Singh: That’s fantastic.

Philip Charlton: Even utilities outside of what we think of as fire-prone areas today need to be watching and learning because the fire-prone area of America is getting bigger and bigger.

Kamran Rasheed: It definitely is. That’s why I say climate change can give you a lot of surprises. Having had a hurricane in San Diego last month, you don’t expect those things. Having smoke clouds coming from the Canadian side, that is something new. Even in the United States, there are areas where you never thought the fire would happen, but still people start thinking about how this is changing. Things are changing rapidly. What it takes is one year of big change, like a drought or not raining on time and conditions when it picks up.

The other thing I want to highlight is that one thing is happening in the forest. The other thing is the growth on the construction side. A lot of our houses and all these new subdivisions are going towards more wilderness. Once the fire enters any of the residential or built areas, the material we use in everything increases the fire. The firefighters have a hard time.

I think it needs to be a holistic approach. Definitely, vegetation management is a piece; a lot of other pieces are there for the electric company and the other utilities. Also, I think there needs to be innovation, and people and experts must be thinking about how the new developments can be more fire-protected or more resilient. That is another angle. I think our industry needs to start highlighting and working with that industry.

Tej Singh: In your current role, your lens, and some of the things that you’re thinking about, you mentioned that you also oversee data analytics. Can you maybe share with us some of the tools and technologies that you guys are considering or currently utilizing that help you take a little bit more of a proactive, informed approach?

Kamran Rasheed: Definitely. Again, for what we are doing, I have a few team members dedicated to that. I have a data scientist as well. We are looking at data from everywhere possible. Some are very new technologies, such as LiDAR. I will bundle it together like remote sensing, as we can call it. It’s a satellite that uses photogrammetry. There is auto-imagery. Some you can collect yourself, and some open sources are available that you can buy.

The other layer we have is that data is available. I have a lot of open-source data that the government has provided. NASA has a lot of data. You can go there. A lot of universities and a lot of government agencies have data. we pulled, such as moisture content, weather patterns, and a lot of open-source data. Then you have all your own utility’s data you collected. Then you have your historic pattern of outages, ignitions, and other failure patterns, and then the tree density. Then you have a subject-matter expert. They can tell you the consequences there. We bring in all layers of data to narrow it down to where we can do more work, and that is our mission.

We have multiple layers of controls. We have our routine program; we have mid-cycle, or what we call second patrol. Then we are trying to take a more targeted approach to go above and beyond. Again, as I said, that is where vegetation management is one of the tools. I’m talking about mitigating the ignitions now. Then you have public safety power shut off. We have EPSS, enhanced power shut-off, undergrounding, and overhead strengthening. There are a lot of other tools in the toolbox we are applying.

Tej Singh: You guys definitely employ a really unique portfolio strategy of options where they are all working together. I know that you guys have made incredible progress with the system and with your customer engagement and technology development. For you specifically, what are some of the things that keep you up at night that you’re still trying to refine or solve? Outside of just overall broad refinement, what are some of the specific challenges that are really at the forefront for you?

Kamran Rasheed: The biggest thing is that what I don’t know.

Tej Singh: Welcome to the team.

Kamran Rasheed: To be honest, whatever is possible. What I know, we try that, and our upper management supports that. Even our state is supporting us, and our communities are supporting us. The community wants to be safe. Everybody’s intention is to mitigate the wildfire risk. But when we come to the plan, there can be differences. We need to work with each other to make sure we go to the same goal at the same pace as everybody’s liking.

But what keeps me up is what I don’t know. What can slip through? Is my thinking enough? That is the reason I reach out to so many people on this. Are you doing any new pilot? Are you thinking of something new? We do benchmarking to keep asking the industry what else is out there.

Tej Singh: There’s lots of peer-to-peer engagement.

Kamran Rasheed: Yes, definitely.

Philip Charlton: You have so many external stakeholders that are actively engaged in helping you.

Kamran Rasheed: Definitely. We have internal stakeholders from multiple angles. They’re looking, they’re giving feedback, and their intention is also a shared intention to avoid outages and ignitions. As I said, when we put together a plan, there can be differences of opinion, but the end goal is that everybody is marching towards how to mitigate the wildfire risk.

Tej Singh: Kamran, you have such a varied background and such a fresh perspective on learning, broad learning, and growth. One of the interesting things about our viewership is that we have lots of young people coming into the profession, and they seem to really gravitate towards the personalities that join us on this podcast. They’re very curious about career decisions that, let’s say, you’ve made along the way. If you are sitting in front of an auditorium of young vegetation professionals, how would you counsel them? What guidance would you give them in terms of their career decision-making as they’re moving through their professional careers?

Kamran Rasheed: The first thing I’ll say to the young people who are coming is that being young is an opportunity. We are not getting younger. When you are young, learn as much as you can. Be humble. Everybody wants to climb; there is nothing wrong with that. But when you want to climb, make sure you look far ahead of where you want to go and also just ahead of you, where you’re not looking so far out that you’re missing a ditch in front of you. Look left and right too; what are the opportunities?

Education is the key. Experience is the key. Diverse experience is the key. Look at multiple angles within that industry, and then decide. Look for some good mentors. People are available in the industry. They want to mentor people. Then make a decision at the right time to climb to the next level, and then learn about that next level.

What is the demand? Where you were or where he or she was doing, the next level may be different. The demand is going to change. If I’m an inspector, now I’m a supervisor. It’s coming a whole lot of new things: responsibility, taking care of employees, being fair with everybody. You need some HR help. As you keep going up, I will say to keep applying these. Be humble, be patient, and listen.

Once you are in leadership, even as the lowest leadership leader, get feedback and then take that as a gift, whether you like it or not. Think about why somebody thought about you like that. Why did he or she say that? Digest that and get better. If somebody gives you good or bad feedback, go back to them. You don’t have to agree with everything somebody says; at least you need to have your own logic and reasons. A lot of times, what I have seen in hindsight, this person gave me feedback. That was good because, at the moment, I was maybe blindsided by what I was thinking or doing.

That is another key point there. Be humble, be listening, and make sure to close the loop. It doesn’t matter which position you are in; once there is feedback, listen, think, and then go back. Close the loop.

Philip Charlton: I like that. You said if you’re a young person out there, find a mentor. I guess I’d turn that around and suggest to so many of our listeners who have been around for 15 or 20 years that they be mentors. Find people who you can help develop.

Kamran Rasheed: Definitely. In this industry, I think, as Phil said, we need to encourage the young generation to find a mentor and people who are experienced. Phil, for example, I reached out to him a few times. Phil, I need help. You’ve been in the industry, you have a PhD, and you did a lot of work on this. How can I do this? They connected with me through facilitation. Again, I second what you said. We need more and more members who can help.

Tej Singh: I feel like you’ve taken on a variety of roles when you were describing your trajectory. It felt like a lot of that happened inside of PG&E—a lot of movement that you’ve had. Tell us a little bit about the flexibility that you have in your organization to be able to try different things and move from different asset classes. Tell us a little bit about the PG&E culture and how that functions.

Kamran Rasheed: PG&E is, as you know, a big company with a lot of departments and a lot of opportunity. Prior to joining PG&E, I worked for the inspection company. I played multiple roles there. I was an inspector, and then there was a role we got where the role was dealing with refusals. That takes a little bit more patience and interpersonal skills. You’re trying to convince the customer that you need to do it. Then I was a supervisor, then operations manager, training, and learning.

When I got into PG&E, that opened up a lot more doors too. PG&E has so many different departments because it’s specifically gas and electric. These are the two main things, and then there are a lot of other organizations that support delivery, generation, and customer service. On that, majority of my time is veg management. The opportunity I got in adaptive vegetation management when the drought hit gave me an opportunity. My company tapped me on the shoulder. You need to start a new program. We need to deal with it. The governor declared a state of emergency. Opportunity came through that situation.

Later on, when I started that, I got the opportunity to manage that, and then I got the opportunity to be a senior operations manager to run the whole operations for vegetation management. Opportunities come if you have patience, you do good work, and you’re recognized. That is one way the opportunity comes. The other one is that you keep your eyes open. Look for mentors within or outside of your organization for vegetation management.

I did spend over a year in electronic operation safety. I was very curious about how I could help to be safer. I got an opportunity. I did that, and then when I got there, I said I’m experienced in vegetation management safety. I have a certification, but how about the broader safety of utilities? I was able to use CUSP to do it. Because I’m in safety, I need to learn how to watch people and how to contribute. That helped me go there, get more humble, and get a perspective on a different workforce than what I’m doing today. That was also a need.

I came in here, and there was a need to set a strategy, long-term and short-term. We need to depend on analytics, so we’re doing the right thing. Again, as I said, opportunity can be found if you look at it or if you’re looking outside. It can be both ways.

Tej Singh: Well, it was an absolute pleasure to sit down and chat with you today. Let’s find some more time and continue the discussion.

Philip Charlton: For our audience, all hell is broken loose out on the hall.

Kamran Rasheed: Thank you.

Tej Singh: This is a pleasure. Thank you so much. Thanks, Kamran.

Kamran Rasheed: Thank you.

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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