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Episode 46: Understanding UVM Practices in Australia w/ Stephen Martin

Episode 46: Understanding UVM Practices in Australia w/ Stephen Martin

Welcome to the 46th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 46

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Stephen Martin, Senior Strategist – Land, Research & Development for Powerlink Queensland.

Episode 46 Transcript

Philip Charlton: Welcome to the Trees and Lines podcast. Tej and I speak with Steve about vegetation management in Australia in general and specifically about Powerlink’s land asset strategy, bushfire mitigation, and R&D program management. Have a listen. I hope you enjoy.

Welcome, Steve. I appreciate your joining us today. Steve, for our listeners and viewers, why don’t you take a moment and tell us about yourself and about your program there at Powerlink?

Stephen Martin: Thank you again, Phil, for the opportunity and the resources you’re providing to the broader utility management community. I’m a journeyman and have been involved in the industry for around 30 years. I was part of distribution in my early time and have been part of transmission for over 20 years now at Powerlink. I come from an environmental background.

My first foray into the industry was managing vegetation contractors. I’ve sort of returned to those roots, but more from a strategic perspective in the last seven or eight years. I’ve been developing strategies for our land assets at Powerlink and managing our R&D program, and therefore our mitigation programs. This keeps me busy and engaged as a Powerlink employee.

It’s an exciting time at Powerlink, which is in the northeast corner of Australia. We’ve got a fairly diverse environment to work in. Our network travels through everything from desert country in the West, semi-arid, to the tropics in the north and everything in between.

Philip Charlton: Could you clarify how many miles or kilometers of line you are maintaining?

Stephen Martin: Currently, we have 15,000 circuit kilometers and a bit over 10,000 route kilometers. We have a significant amount of double circuit. Over the next ten years, we’re likely going to double it. There’s a substantial program of capital works happening on our books.

Philip Charlton: Good. Is it publicly owned?

Stephen Martin: Yes, it’s publicly owned by the state government.

Philip Charlton: Your background’s environmental, you said. I think that’s what you said.

Stephen Martin: Yes, that’s my base degree.

Philip Charlton: When considering the rights-of-way and maintaining vegetation, does the utility view it as merely a maintenance cost, or do they see it as an asset that can be managed for other benefits?

Stephen Martin: One aspect I truly appreciate about Powerlink’s approach, which was established before my arrival, is their management of land assets. These assets have attributes, costs, and risks associated with them. As part of the asset strategies team, I admire the philosophy of treating the environment, land, and vegetation as assets that need to be managed in conjunction with the community.

Tej Singh: Stephen, did you guys know each other through industry at all? Did your paths cross?

Philip Charlton: We may have met years ago when I worked down there, but it would have been years ago.

Stephen Martin: Yes, and more recently, we’ve connected virtually on LinkedIn. I’ve been closely following Phil and the work he’s been doing.

Tej Singh: In that vein, how much of your engagement extends beyond the continent? Are you interacting with Europe and North America for ideas and information? Are you disseminating your work for adoption by the rest of us and the world at large? Could you elaborate on your level of international engagement?

Stephen Martin: Indeed, we’re committed to providing Queensland energy consumers with a world-class service. That’s our mission at Powerlink. We engage internationally, whether it’s with wildfire, research, or vegetation management. I’m one of the spearheads for all these areas at Powerlink. I have the privilege of being involved in a significant amount of international dialogue, both in sharing what we’re doing and learning from others.

Philip Charlton: For us, integrated vegetation management is the standard. I know you’re familiar with it. Is that considered best practice there as well?

Stephen Martin: Absolutely. The term “right of way management” is used in the States, but not as much here in Australia. However, “integrated vegetation management” is certainly used in Australia. The principles of integrated vegetation management are referenced and embedded in the way we manage our land assets. Absolutely.

Tej Singh: As you mentioned, you are located in the top right corner of the country. When we break down Australia into quadrants, are the principles, techniques, and strategies applied in Queensland similar to those in the rest of the country? I understand that in the U.S., strategies vary widely as you move from California over the flyover states and then into the east. The risks are also very different. Could you describe a bit about the topography you’re dealing with?

Stephen Martin: Even within Queensland, there’s a great deal of diversity. In the wet tropics, we’re dealing with World Heritage areas and structures that overspan the rainforest. Consequently, our vegetation management strategy there is very different from what we might have implemented in southeast Queensland and into central Queensland. There, we connect large generators across grazing areas that were single circuit, low profile, with no room to retain a lot of vegetation. Essentially, we’re dealing with only grasses and herbs that are compatible with that sort of structure, and everything in between.

Just within our service area, the diversity is significant, which means we need to have some internal expertise to interpret what Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) means for those various contexts. There’s even more diversity the further you go around Australia, especially the further south you go. You start to encounter more Mediterranean climates, so you’ve got hot, dry summers typically in Queensland, even in the western parts. When it gets hotter, you tend to get some more humidity, so our fire risk has traditionally been lower than the southern states.

However, we’ve certainly had a number of incidents since November 2018, which was the first time that we experienced some catastrophic fire weather in Queensland. That’s certainly started to pique our interest that we can’t just rest on past history. The climate is changing, and it’s getting hotter and drier in Queensland too.

Philip Charlton: Wasn’t your biggest fire a bit earlier? It might not have been in Queensland, but wasn’t there a Black Saturday bushfire in 2010?

Stephen Martin: Yes, there have been terrible fires in the southern parts of Australia at other times. Absolutely. However, for us in Queensland, our worst fire seasons occurred around November 2018 and November 2019, extending into December as well.

Philip Charlton: Every indication is that the fires are going to be more frequent, or at least the conditions for them are favorable.

Stephen Martin: Yes.

Tej Singh: Here, the utilities have to submit their plans and their budgets to the local state regulators for approval, and then all of those costs get bundled up and passed to the ratepayer. Is that the same relationship with your regulators as well?

Stephen Martin: It’s a little bit different. As a transmission entity, we’re economically regulated at a national level. Then, from an electrical safety perspective, that’s at the state level. But the costs are assessed every five years by a national regulator.

Philip Charlton: What about the veg management practices? Is that regulated in any way, or are outcomes regulated?

Stephen Martin: I guess that would rest more with the electrical safety regulator. There’s an annual audit to renew our license to make sure that we’re doing things safely. That would be the main area that we question in our veg management programs and fire mitigation.

Philip Charlton: General terms: IVM. However, tell us a little bit about the program. Is it cycle-based or condition-based?

Stephen Martin: We’ve got a long history of cycles, and we’ve introduced in the last few years an annual review process that feeds in a number of risk factors to then look at what the potential cycle buster spans are. So that’s structure to structure, and we’ll then have a more intensive look at those ones to see if they are on the right cycle or whether we need to go in an intervening sort of cycle to make sure we’re maintaining them safely. We’re trying to move towards data-driven systems and maybe disperse the cycles. It’s just built sections that are done when they’re needed, but we’ve still got more data collection to go to have confidence in that.

Philip Charlton: Definitely moving towards data-driven everywhere, which means technology.

Stephen Martin: Absolutely.

Philip Charlton: Tell us what you’re doing there: remote sensing, work management systems.

Stephen Martin: All of the above. I think we started with some baseline LiDAR, and I think anyone who does their first round of LiDAR gets a fright with all the data and the exclusions or intrusions. We’ve moved out of that space, and we’ve leveraged that data set.

With that, we’re also using freely available satellite imagery as a risk factor to feed into our veg management programs, things like soil types, veg communities, greenness of the vegetation, and rainfall. They were feeding in, and we’re, I guess, maturing it. We just see satellite datasets as a more sustainable way of managing our corridors, and we’re trying to keep vegetation a long way away from our transmission conductors. So we’re looking to also integrate fire management. We don’t necessarily like fires, but for people who are doing mitigation burns, we’d like to encourage them to use their corridors both to burn off as well as to burn across, and we need to coordinate with them to make sure that’s done safely.

That’s as far as the technology goes. Then we’re looking at fire scars. That’s something we’re introducing. The fire scars have the potential to disrupt our herbicide treatment of the vegetation, or they could present an opportunity within the next 12 months to target incompatible species, which are, I suppose, easier to reach after a fire when there are fresh shoots.

Tej Singh: One of your countrymates who joined our podcast early on, Nigel Barry, I don’t know if you’ve had a crossover with Nigel in your time in the space, but he and his team have built some pretty interesting software solutions. Have you and Nigel had some crossover in the Australian market?

Stephen Martin: We’ve touched base, but it’s fair to say that I’m not the SME in that space. A colleague of mine, John Mockler, is leading the charge with that technology integration and providing, I guess, the philosophies and strategies that it should be following.

Tej Singh: I’m always peppering Phil with questions like this because I like to contextualize the market and understand who’s leading in the space. Given that you’re across a bunch of bodies of water from your lens and your time in space, is there a group, a utility, or a private company out there that’s really ahead in the veg space that has been setting the standards over the years that you look at and say we always use them as a marker, whether that’s in Europe, Australia, or North America? Can you provide some context? Again, I think our audience and our listeners like the context. Sometimes they want to hear their own names mentioned, so I’m curious if there’s a group.

Stephen Martin: In 2018, I had the good fortune to attend the Right-of-Way Symposium in Denver. I was fortunate enough to present a couple of papers that we were working on. I was blown away by the depth of understanding, research, and evidence that exists in the States and Canada around pollinators and their benefits. The function that right-of-ways can provide as a positive environmental benefit from an IVM approach was one of my motivations for attending the symposium.

This body of work doesn’t exist in Australia. I tip my hat to the States. One of the legacies I’m hoping to leave as part of my work with Powerlink is establishing some long-term monitoring plots with good baseline research. We are looking at the types of treatments we do over time to observe the change in vegetation communities and having universities conduct research on it.

I’d love to be, in 50 years’ time, where I think the body of research in the US and Canada is around the benefits of pollinators. Without singling anyone out, I think that body of work is fantastic. John Goodfellow is a fellow journeyman, but heads and shoulders above me. He is someone I admire, a legend of this space, and someone I reference and go to for advice.

Alex Bloss from ATCO has done some great work coordinating planned burns with national parks in his part of the world. He works with First Nations people and integrates it with researchers. I think we’re on parallel paths; we’re ahead in one aspect, and he’s ahead in others. He’s someone that I compare notes with regularly internationally.

Stan Vera-Art is someone I met at the Right-of-Way Symposium. I’d like to give him a shout-out.

Tej Singh: Yes, Stan’s great.

Stephen Martin: Yes, he’ll cut through with different thought processes and challenge the way you’re doing things. I’ve done some pilot work with Stan and his team to try and find a grazing animal area on our network. We found some areas that were suitable. We didn’t get any takers as far as landholders that were willing to do it with us. I’ve tried some local suppliers and came up with a similar sort of result. I’m hoping I can cross that bridge one day.

Tej Singh: Stephen, you mentioned universities. An ongoing conversation here in the States is about the depth chart of resources and the depth chart of knowledge. You’ve obviously got the likes of Phil and John Goodfellow and a whole host of other folks that have been leading in the space for quite some time. The labor force is somewhat limited, and it’s not catching up with the volume of the work. Are you guys having a similar issue, or have you been planning for this as an industry a little bit better?

Stephen Martin: Given the amount of capital works we’ve got on our program, there’s a huge ramp-up going on. Something I have been involved in previously, and we’re reengaging with that, is having development programs. As you say, it’s hard to get those experienced people because they are in demand, so we’re certainly revisiting, because of the expansion, a development program where people get the opportunity to get experience in different parts of the business so that at the end of those few years, they’ve learned about the business, they understand where their skill sets are best suited, and we can put them to good use, whether it’s engineering, whether it’s environmental, whether it’s over here.

Philip Charlton: What about your field workers? Do you have an adequate supply? Most utilities are struggling there.

Stephen Martin: For sure. Look, we’re only 12 months into a new contract model, and I think we’ve tried to design the contract model to try and help there as far as giving contractors long-term patches to manage and trying to smooth out the workflows so it’s not too peaky that they’re having to bring in short-term workers to get over those peaks with performance indicators and impairing them more. We tried to put a model out there that will help enable them to sustainably recruit and retain good staff. But there are still challenges, for sure.

Tej Singh: How much are you playing with outage data? There are a lot of different stakeholders that care about outage data. The utilities themselves respond to customers, but you also have people that trade the electricity markets and are speculating on electricity prices; they care about outage data. And of course, here in the States, unbeknownst to me, vegetation trees were the largest cause of outages. How much of that data has been circulating, utilized, collected, and analyzed? Where are you guys in that process?

Stephen Martin: I’m fortunate there a little bit. I think it went hand in glove with our approach to land asset management. Obviously, a lag indicator of whether you’re doing a good job is whether you’re getting outages around your asset management. And so I’ve got good datasets on whether they are our veg management programs, fire and wildlife, or lightning, whatever the various causes might be, what’s causing the outages, and what the trend lines are, and there’s an investigation into them. I think that’s significant, and we’ve trained up investigators for all the different types of skills that we need to look at. I’ve got increasing confidence in our data sets there, and I’m happy to report that they’re trending downward. It’s hard to get down to zero and sustain zero, obviously. There’s always something that’ll be a blip on the radar, but we’ve got low numbers.

Tej Singh: Are you guys also sharing any resources with New Zealand, Indonesia, or Papua New Guinea? Is there any relationship outside of Australia with neighboring countries?

Stephen Martin: Yes, there are some. ENA, Energy Networks Australia, is currently having a conference in Adelaide. That also brings in New Zealand from time to time. This one’s got the New Zealand people there. I’m not at that one this year. I didn’t get a guernsey, but there’s a good cohort of Powerlink people down there, and there’s certainly a sharing of knowledge and expertise there every year. They have a national conference, and there’s various streams, so there’s an International Wildfire Risk Management Consortium annual conference also happening in Adelaide next week, and we have a utility arborist association in Australia that’s having an annual conference in Melbourne later in the year. We certainly get together and compare notes. Sometimes there’s some reluctance to share outage data because you don’t want it to get into the wrong hands and, I guess, weaponized.

Tej Singh: I get it. I understand. That’s fine.

Philip Charlton: We’ve covered a real range of topics. When you look down the road, where do you think the biggest challenges are going to emerge, or what are you worried about? Or what are the opportunities? Just a little vision casting.

Stephen Martin: Fire continues to be the one that grabs my attention because it’s been so far from our thoughts and management practices in the past in Queensland. But I think with that increasing climate change and the increasing likelihood and intensity of the fires occurring, particularly based on the forecasting, the southern parts of the state need to be, and that’s why we’re part of international forums to try and learn from what other people are doing. We’re fortunate, being publicly owned, that we’re able to talk directly with our state agencies about fire mitigation that’s happening in the landscape. We’re now coordinating their planned burn programs with our maintenance programs, and I’m happy that we’re doing the best we possibly can, but it still worries me.

Philip Charlton: Well, at least you’re being proactive. So many utilities don’t wake up until there has to be a reaction.

Tej Singh: How big is your team, Steve? What’s the size of the Powerlink veg land management team?

Stephen Martin: Internally, we’ve got, say, a half-dozen easement officers, but then we’ve got another half-dozen easement officers run by our distribution utility that provide services for us in other parts of the state, and then there’s a whole heap of contractors that I couldn’t give you a number for those contractors.

Tej Singh: It is pretty sizable.

Stephen Martin: Yes. We’re probably over a dozen internal people and sizable contractor staff.

Tej Singh: The trend we’ve seen here in the US, of course, is on the back of an event—a fire or a large storm—something that has impacted the infrastructure. We’ll see budgets go up in the next three to five years after an event before it tapers off. Similar situation post ‘18, ’19? Have the dollars that you’ve been able to work with expanded so you can take on initiatives?

Stephen Martin: No, that’s an interesting question. No, that is not the case. Strategically, our position as a publicly owned utility has been that we don’t want to add to the electricity customer’s bills. When we’ve had our most recent review, we’ve just put in a flat OpEx with CPI. So there’s no big change.

Tej Singh: You’re playing budgetary tetris, which is what you have to work with.

Stephen Martin: Yes, absolutely. And that’s where that annual review and risk factors feed into to make sure that you’re managing your highest risk and, if you’ve got a cycle, whether it’s the right cycle.

Tej Singh: Fascinating. Do you ever find yourself stateside, or are you planning to make any trips this way over the next year or two?

Stephen Martin: I absolutely loved my time in the States in 2018 and certainly plan to come back. It certainly was one of my bucket lists for the right-of-way symposium. I’d always admired the work that was happening out of those symposiums, so it was great to attend that, and then going around the States and going to the national parks heading up into Canada was just breathtaking. I loved getting back there. There’s some great work I’d love to find out more about with colleagues. PG&E is doing some great work in California too. It’s amazing the result, as you were describing when you talk about resources; it’s just incredible the resources that they are putting into their issues and mind-blowing what could happen if you had the resources.

Philip Charlton: Trees and Utilities is in September, and that’s probably the one that brings the most in. I encourage you to consider that one here, too.

Stephen Martin: Absolutely, Phil. That’s the other one that I’ve looked at, and seeing as I’ve been to the Right-of-Way Symposium, I’ll target the Trees and Utilities one next time.

Philip Charlton: They’re both good conferences.

Tej Singh: Again, Steve, as I mentioned, the industry generally is pretty new for me. I’ve been engaging with the space for the last few years, and that choosing utilities I found to be extremely engaging—some great speaking sessions, in fact a lot of the interaction with the different stakeholders and how everybody comes together or shares ideas—and also just a great social gathering of your industry peers to the extent that you could prioritize that one. I’d recommend that one for sure.

Philip Charlton: And it’s in Texas backyard this year. We’ll take you to dinner this year.

Tej Singh: Yes, Dallas. Exactly.

Stephen Martin: Thanks for the invite.

Tej Singh: Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time. I know we’re dealing with some time zone stuff, so we really appreciate you coming on and sharing some perspectives and a little bit of your story. I really enjoyed the chat today, so thanks again.

Philip Charlton: Thank you, Steve. I appreciate the time. It was good. Let’s get together, and if you need help putting your tour of peers together, give me a call.

Stephen Martin: Thanks, Phil. I appreciate it.

Philip Charlton: That would be fun to do.

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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