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Episode 45: Challenges, Solutions & Customer Interactions of Co-ops w/ George Leader & Penny Whisenant

Episode 45: Challenges, Solutions & Customer Interactions of Co-ops w/ Penny Whisenant & George Leader

Welcome to the 45th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 45

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with George Leader, Vegetation Maintenance Manager, and Penny Whisenant, Vegetation Maintenance Supervisor, at Pedernales 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 45 Transcript

Philip Charlton: This edition of the Trees and Lines podcast is back from the Trees and Utilities exhibit hall. George Leader is joining us. Welcome, George. I appreciate your coming in.

George Leader: Well, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Tej Singh: Welcome, George.

Philip Charlton: George, get us started. Give us a little bit of who you are, who you work for, and a little bit about your background.

George Leader: I’m George Leader. I work for Pedernales Electric Cooperative. We’re in central Texas, Texas Hill Country. But our footprint is about 8,100 square miles, or about 20,000 miles of land in a 300-mile transmission. Then we have about 350,000 meters on the system.

My background was originally as a lineman, climbing the power poles, changing transformers, and working transmission lines. I did that from 1978 until about 15 years ago. That’s when someone decided I needed to learn how to do vegetation, which was great. We’ve been working on this program for 15 years, and it’s a tremendous program now.

Philip Charlton: What are some of the unique challenges there? Is that North Texas?

George Leader: No, it’s Central Texas. I guess some of the unique challenges are dealing with members of the live oaks. They love their live oak trees, and we have oak wilt in that area. All of my team and I have gone through oak-wilt training to help them. We have to trim year-round, so it’s a struggle. It’s a challenge for some of these members to understand that yes, we know the beetle is active during the springtime, but we still have to trim the trees.

But we do everything. We do our spraying, and we do our cleaning of the tools and stuff, so we get all that done. That’s probably the biggest challenge. The second biggest would be the membership. We’ve got probably 1% that we will never satisfy or don’t care what we do. Like my grandpa used to say, they’d gripe if they were hung with a new rope.

Philip Charlton: That has to be a Texas saying.

George Leader: It is a Texas saying.

Tej Singh: We were talking a little bit before the recording, and Pedernales is the largest co-op in the country.

George Leader: It’s definitely the largest in Texas. I would say, probably, if you go by land mass area, you could put Massachusetts or one of these other smaller states within our border. Like I said, Massachusetts has 10,000 miles of land, but they have 1.2 million meters. If you go by meters, they are quite a bit larger than we are.

Tej Singh: Can you maybe describe some of the different challenges that a cooperative may face versus an investor-owned utility? What are some of the things that you guys may have to deal with? Maybe it’s a regulatory thing or how decisions get made? What are some of the challenges as a cooperative that you have to face?

George Leader: Probably, I would say the challenges are more on the IOU than they are on the cooperatives. The cooperative model is made to cater more to the membership because we’re member-owned and we’re nonprofit, so we’re not looking at the bottom line of what we do.

The main challenge for us is to maintain a reliable system at an affordable price for our membership. Whatever we don’t spend goes back in for next year and then eventually gets back to the member as a dividend. Other than that, we still have the same regulatory challenges that the IOUs have and customer member challenges.

Tej Singh: But as a nonprofit, your footprint is so big. Budgets are a concern for everyone, but in terms of being able to optimize your program and utilize technology, dollars have to be a concern.

George Leader: They are a big concern. We have built this program from the ground up, and we were reactive only; just go out and fix whatever you find when we first started it 15 years ago. Now, we work on trying to be as efficient as we can.

We’ve got so many different programs going down where we do mulching. We can mulch this, followed by herbicides, and we can spend a tenth on the herbicides than we would on the pruning. That’s a major savings, and being able to show that to our board and to our executive management that what we remove now saves us dividends in the long run because we never have to touch it again.

Looking at that and then using Geiger-Mode LiDAR now, it’s able to target where we need to spend the money instead of us giving a map to a contractor and telling them, please go out there and tell me what we need to do. Now that we have those locations, we send them out with a map, and they get that done.

Philip Charlton: You’ve really moved away from cycle-based maintenance. It’s on condition.

George Leader: Yes, we will, and if I have my way, we won’t go back to cycle. Targeted is the way to go if you can afford the LiDAR. The biggest issue for co-ops is that they can’t afford some of the technologies out there. That’s where my heart is to try to work with some of these co-ops, especially after I retire, to help them maybe come together in a coalition in some way so they can join forces to get the technology. Geiger LiDAR, when it flies over one cooperative, it’s picking up the other cooperatives around it as well. If they all come together and pay a piece of that, then the cost could be considerably lower.

Tej Singh: Yes, socialized model. That’s a great idea.

Philip Charlton: Tell us about your LiDAR program.

George Leader: We’ve flown three times in the last three years. When we first started it, we had 12.8% of our 20,000 miles of line, of which only about 55% had vegetation. But 12.8% of that was either in the lines burning or overhanging. We deliberately went after just those locations at first. We’re on our third flight, and we just got the data back from it. Those locations went from 12.9% to 2.9% because we’re able to focus our finances there.

The other cool thing is that I started out with a $12 million budget. I had $4 million about five years ago, and I had a good vice president over me at the time, and he’s since moved on to bigger and better things. But he went with me to the board and got more money, and then I got $12 million. Then last year, I was able to give $1 million back because of what we did with LiDAR. I was able to give another million dollars back this year because of the LiDAR program, which is a great benefit. Management is on board as long as I’m giving money back.

Philip Charlton: Are you flying that every year, distribution and transmission?

George Leader: Right now, we’ve worked with IBM, and a guy that’s worked for them, whose name is Jeff Garwick, was instrumental in putting together a predictive model where he can take the LiDAR in with algorithms looking at tree species, soil history, and such, and be able to predict where the potential tree issues are going to be next year and the following year. We’re looking at maybe not flying again for two years and just trying this predictive model, and maybe in two years we’ll fly a satellite to see where we’re at with it. But that’s the way I think the industry is headed: to do a predictive-type program.

Philip Charlton: You went from 12.9% to 2.9% past due in some way. What happened to your reliability stats?

George Leader: Our reliability stats show that when we started this whole thing, we were at 8.6% of the outages, and we were number three on the outage list. Now, we’re at about 4.1% of the outages, and we’re down to about number five on the list of top outages. It’s actually a great deal. I don’t know if you all are familiar with the snowstorm Uri that we had that shut Texas down and caused all those issues. We had over 400 outages that were tree-related. The last ice storm we had just back in February, we had reduced, to the ones that I could affect, down to three outages that were tree-related in that we removed all the overhang and such. Now we had a lot of outages that were considered tree outages, but it was because of trees on communication lines or something else that pulled the poles down and broke lines and stuff.

Tej Singh: George, you mentioned you were a lineman first. Growing up as a lineman and coming from that part of the industry, how has that affected your lens as a vegetation professional? That’s not a traditional path.

George Leader: No, it’s not. I’ve gone from looking at how a tree is in my way and cutting it, not caring what it looked like when I was done, to now making sure that it’s properly cut and that we’re trimming it away from there. I’ve gone from not caring about trees at all to being a big advocate. I’m a big advocate of trees now. I feel that a lot of our climate issues would be solved if we would stop cutting down trees and destroying habitat. But I don’t want to get on an environmental soapbox with you now.

Philip Charlton: Does Pedernales have environmental programs that you are planning?

George Leader: We do that. We work with our members. If they let us remove some of the invasive species from their property, sometimes we will provide them with a tree, depending on the situation. It’s not something we do as a standard. That’s a one-off that happens every once in a while. But what we have done as far as the environment is that we started seeding our right-of-way with pollinators, trying to get the butterflies in. We work with landowners that have high fences and exotic properties to maybe come in and let us mulch and clean their property up, and then we can come in and do a food plot for them to help them. The benefit there is that we don’t have to come back to their property, and they don’t have to yell at us anymore.

Tej Singh: But do you feel like, as a lineman, you have some type of advantage in terms of how you think about the footprint? I’m just asking because there’s a lot of linemen out there in the space, and as this industry, vegetation management, is going through questions around labor shortages, I could see a situation where you see a lot of this cross penetration from some of these other infrastructure roles and converting like a lineman to a vegetation specialist. Where did it help you? Where did your experience as a lineman help you in terms of managing a system?

George Leader: In the knowledge of where trees are and location, the power lines, we try to keep clear around air brake switches, things that linemen have to operate, keep the vegetation down around those. We try to remove trees or brush in such a way that they can be able to restore power. I think a lot about the restoration of power. How can we clear it up, first of all, to prevent an outage? Second of all, if there is an outage, how can we set it up so that our linemen can get to it more effectively?

Philip Charlton: As utilities moved on condition, they allow some more encroachment maybe than at other times, but there has to be a repair and restoration cost associated with it, too.

George Leader: Yes, definitely.

Tej Singh: As the largest co-op in Texas, do you act as mentor to a lot of the smaller players throughout the state?

George Leader: Not yet, but that’s what I want to do. I want to work with them and help them wherever I can. A lot of them don’t have access to conferences like this one we’re at right now. A lot of them don’t have access to be able to, or may not even know that there are certifications, training, and stuff that they can get out there. I just want to be able to put that out there and help them find what I found. I want to give back because I have had so many people, Phil’s one of them, that have given to me over the years and helped me understand more about what I’m doing now, and it’s time for me to give back to others.

Tej Singh: That’s fantastic. George, it is an absolute pleasure chatting with you. Your perspective is unique and interesting.

Philip Charlton: George, we had one of your team here earlier. She was a pleasure to meet.

Tej Singh: You have a good team, and I’m really excited to see what you do next. We’re going to have to continue this discussion around co-ops and the progression of co-ops. Thank you again for making time.

George Leader: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Philip Charlton: Well, George, it is always a pleasure.

George Leader: Definitely. Thank you all.

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Tej Singh: Welcome to another episode of Trees and Lines. We’re here at Trees and Utilities. We’re joined by Penny Whisenant from Pedernales. Welcome. We’re excited to have you join us today.

Penny Whisenant: Thanks. I’m excited to join.

Tej Singh: We’re going to get into your background a bit. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Penny Whisenant: I am from Marble Falls, Texas. I grew up there, and after that, I went on to college at Stephen F. Austin State University. I got my bachelor’s in forestry there, with an emphasis on wildland fire ecology. I went on to work for ACRT after a short stint with the Texas A&M Forest Service. After that, I worked on Pedernales Electric System, and then I went over to Medina Electric with ACRT. Those are both co-ops in Texas. After that, I got a job offer from Pedernales Electric, and that’s where I went. I’ve been at PEC for seven years now.

Tej Singh: From your perspective on your system, what are some of the specific challenges that you face in your respective footprint in terms of the actual system?

Penny Whisenant: It’s usually the membership, trying to figure out how to educate them properly on what we’re doing and convey the information to them in a way that they understand and accept what we are trying to do. That’s, I would say, the biggest challenge because people really enjoy their trees, they really like their vegetation, and they just do not want anybody to cut it. My dad is one of them. Every time somebody comes to trim his trees, if it’s from PEC, he’s immediately calling me, even if it’s not me doing it.

Tej Singh: Do you guys, as an organization, have a dedicated group that focuses on customer interaction?

Penny Whisenant: Yes, we do. We have a correspondence department. We have community relations—it might not be called that; I apologize. But we do have some groups that deal with that, and they’re very good. They work with the members. They work with children in the area. They partner with schools to educate kids on tree trimming, environmental issues, and line clearing or linemen stuff. Electricity is hot. They bring it down to that level.

Philip Charlton: You’re also passionate about pollinators and have a program there.

Penny Whisenant: Yes. PEC has a pollinator program. We started out seeding pollinator-friendly wildflower species on the transmission rights-of-ways. It was just a small project. It’s still just a small project that we’re doing, but it’s growing. After we got a good handle on the transmission right-of-way, we started looking to do other things like seed around the underground boxes because we have lots of underground distribution, and so we have to keep those clear.

We started doing some projects with that, and the membership really took to that. We have a retirement community in our service territory, and we did a special project with them where we went and planted wildflower seeds around their boxes and in some green areas for them.

Tej Singh: Oh, very cool.

Philip Charlton: That’s a great idea.

Penny Whisenant: It was fun.

Tej Singh: Well, we really appreciate you taking the time today. Thank you very much.

Penny Whisenant: Thank you.

Philip Charlton: It is really nice to get to know you.

Penny Whisenant: Yeah, thank you. Any time at all.

Philip Charlton: I’ve known George for years, so it’s nice to get to meet you.

Tej Singh: Thanks, Penny. I appreciate it.

Penny Whisenant: 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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