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Episode 17: The Inner Workings of an Electric Co-op w/ Amanda Opp

Welcome to the 17th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast Transcript- Episode 17

A conversation with Amanda Opp, Certified Utility Vegetation Management Professional (CUVMP), Flathead Electric Cooperative.

Tejpal Singh, COO, and Dr. Phil Charlton, Principal Advisor, at Iapetus Infrastructure Services

Welcome to another episode of The Trees and Lines podcast. Today we’re talking with Amanda Opp, the Right of Way supervisor for Flathead Electric Cooperative. Amanda talks with us today about her experience as a graduate and now facilitator of the Utility Vegetation Management Professional Development Program, as well as the challenges they have been facing as a co-op in the industry. 

Have a listen and hope you enjoy.

Philip Charlton: Welcome, Amanda. We’re excited to have you join us today.

Amanda Opp: Thank you for having me. This is exciting.

Introduction and Background

Philip Charlton: Let’s start by getting a little bit of background and getting to know you. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve done, where you are, and what you’re doing today.

Amanda Opp: My background is civil engineering, so I am an engineer. I came to the utility arborist industry through GIS. I worked in GIS with my utility for four years; I took our paper workflows and made them digital.

Then I was asked if I wanted to do that with the vegetation management department because they were still using paper workflows. When I did that, I found a home with the tree people here. It’s such a great team. I work for a cooperative. We work on tight budgets and our business model is a little different than investor-owned utilities. We’re still trying to find some forward motion in our program with keeping our members happy, which can be challenging.

It has a little duality to it. We have six tree crews here at Flathead Electric: two in-house, four contract crews and two utility foresters.

Philip Charlton: You’re located right in the heart of Montana, right?

Amanda Opp: Right in the heart of Montana. Glacier Park is in our backyard. So, we have some very diverse issues here.

Philip Charlton: Before we begin questioning you, let me just say congratulations. I see you’re a new member of the board at the Utility Arborist Association. Thank you. Congratulations. That’s exciting.

Amanda Opp: I am so excited to join that group, learn everything I can, and help in every way I can.

Leveraging GIS 

Tej Singh: Amanda, you said GIS is your background. By the way, I’m an engineer, as well. But not a practicing one, I just have the degree. I always caveat about that. So, GIS is your bread and butter. Is that in every one of your roles? Has that been the primary angle and lens from which you approach this industry and the work?

Amanda Opp: Absolutely. I feel like there’s so much capability within our GIS and, when you really know the meat and potatoes of GIS software (we use esri, which is probably the major player in the game), when you know how to use that software, you can do things that you never imagined. We administer all our own vegetation management through ArcGIS and created it from scratch (i.e., a ground up effort).

That’s just the cooperative way to save money and expenses. We’ve built that, track everything, and get all our metrics through that.

Tej Singh: I won’t get into it here on today’s podcast, but Phil, myself, and a couple of our other leaders are working on a potential solution for the co-op and municipal markets. I’ll just talk very topline about a product that we’re trying to design. One thing we found in our conversations around the utility industry is that a lot of attention and resources go to the big players. In every state. And I was really blown away with how many municipalities and co-ops there are in the country.

From our perspective, the challenge that you have is always a function of available resources, cost-effective solutions, and managing to a different audience from a regulatory perspective.

I realize that combination can be so challenging for co-ops to solve what you need to solve for with the constraints that you have. It’s drawn our attention because we just think that it’s an interesting problem to solve. There’s a lot to solve because there are so many smaller entities out there that are controlling major parts of the transmission infrastructure.

We’ll definitely have to chat about that more.

Amanda Opp: I’d love that. Yes, there are roughly 900 co-ops and that doesn’t even include the municipalities.

Philip Charlton: Probably three times as many municipalities, right?  

Tej Singh: Are you from Montana? Born and raised?

Amanda Opp: Yes, next generation Montanan.

Tej Singh: This is going to sound so cliché, but the first thing that came to my mind was Yellowstone.

Amanda Opp: You’re not the only one. Everybody’s like, “Have you seen that show?”

Tej Singh: Have you seen the show?

Amanda Opp: When asked, “Is Montana like that?” I’m like, well I don’t know anybody who’s killed anyone, so . . . no.  But it does give a great perspective about what ranching is like and how tough it can be. It’s dramatized obviously.

From Engineer and Cashier to Vegetation Management

Tej Singh: Have you been at Flathead Electric Cooperative your entire career?

Amanda Opp: For the majority of it. I’ve been with the cooperative for almost 12 years, and I started out actually as a part-time cashier, which is kind of a fun story to tell people. When I finished my engineering degree, I did a little consulting. I worked for an environmental consultant and did plating and all of that. I faced challenges where I felt like maybe I wasn’t good enough to do engineering. So much doubt creeps into your mind. As a new graduate, it’s hard to get that confidence. I went to the local bank and decided I’m going to be a vault teller for a while. That feels like something I am totally going to be good at. Let’s go! And I did that for four years.

When a cashier job opened at the utility, I was a good fit because I’d spent a lot of time handling money. I worked as a part-time cashier for the first two years while I was at the utility. I’ve started at the ground level and moved up.

Certified Utility Vegetation Management Professional

Philip Charlton: That’s impressive. When you moved into vegetation management, you did something I think is unique. You were one of the first graduates of the Utility Vegetation Management Professional Development Program. And you’re one of the very few that are recognized as a Certified Utility Vegetation Management Professional.

That’s neat. As an engineer, you decided to go and get the training. Tell us a little bit about why you did it and what you think of the program because there are others out there who might be considering it.

Amanda Opp: That’s awesome. When I started in the vegetation management department, I really knew nothing about what I was about to get myself into.

I picked up the Utility Arborist Association Newsline and I saw this advertisement for the Utility Vegetation Management certificate through, at that time, Southern Alberta. As I got into the first course, I realized this was the first actual class. They had a test group who went through and graduated (a group of six or so).

With our class, around 30 of us went through that first flagship class at Southern Alberta. It was probably the best decision that I ever made. And sometimes those are just accidental. Like you just fall into the best training. I had 29 mentors built into the class who were telling me, “This is how you do it.” It’s so nice coming in with a clean slate to that group of people and getting to chat with them about what they do at their bigger utilities, what they do as contractors, their best practices, and what they’ve developed. I went to school with Canadian students, and folks who work for Salt River Project. They honestly were my best teachers. I wouldn’t be where I am in my program without those courses and those connections.

Tej Singh: How much thought leadership and intellectual understanding of other programs have you incorporated into what you do?

Amanda Opp: I would say I’ve acquired a lot of little nuggets here and there. You just take whatever they’re using and morph it into what works for you.

You’ll hear an idea and expand on it. You’ll hear how they monitor or audit their crews and why that’s an important component of the program. How they run contracts. Why it’s important to do it a certain way versus another based on your utility. And learning about who the stakeholders are and how to really engage them.

So, the overview of the entire certificate is program management and how that applies to utility vegetation management. It really gave me the building blocks of understanding and speaking to my managers and board members about the program and how to best move it forward.

Philip Charlton: That’s an interesting thing because, as you know, managing up is as important as managing into the field.

Different Approaches to Vegetation Management

Amanda Opp: Oh yeah, absolutely. When I came on board, we were really on a reactive maintenance cycle. It wasn’t planned. That was in 2017 and we’ve since started cycle maintenance. We’ve started to look at targeted approaches and all the different methodologies for managing a vegetation management program.

As you know, the ways to do it are as wide, or as many, as there are utilities. It’s been a great experience for me.

And now I’m facilitating with the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point some of those courses, primarily the integrative vegetation management portion.

Every time I go through a course with students, I learn something new that I didn’t learn the first time. They might not know they’re teaching me as well. Particularly, some of the students are from California and they’re regulated differently. I’ve been able to learn nationwide, and in North America, the differences in vegetation management based on region.

Tej Singh: You’ve nailed that one. As we moved from west to east, the problem sets are so different. The topography is so different. The regulatory oversight is so different. Even for us, as we’ve built a company that’s servicing such a wide variety of clients, everything has to be somewhat curated. You could have two neighboring states with totally different objectives, goals, risks, etc. That’s really interesting to hear from your perspective, even in the education environment.

Transmission vs. Distribution

Philip Charlton: So, I’m curious, Amanda, do you have both transmission and distribution?

Amanda Opp: I just have transmission. We’re at 69 kV and below. Bonneville is our supplier, and they are sitting at 230 kV. They’re FERC regulated, but what’s nice is, just within that coursework, learning the differences between that and learning what we have to do (and what the future could look like for what we have to do). Because right now, as a distribution co-op, it’s different than any kind of transmission that’s regulated by FERC. That may change. I don’t know what the industry will look like with wildfire, storms, and environmental changes, so just getting a chance to learn that. Learning where they’re at compared to where we’re at is high value.

Wildfire Mitigation Planning

Philip Charlton: May I assume you’ve built a wildfire mitigation plan?

Amanda Opp: Yes. We completed that just a little over a year ago. We’re about to go into our first review and look at ways to make it less of a document and more of an actionable plan. I think maybe the natural place that you fall into with a wildfire mitigation plan is that you have to do it for insurance or some other reason (e.g., the state requires it) and when you get into it, you ask how can we actually use the plan. What are some goals that make a wildfire mitigation plan better and move it out of the classroom into the field?

Tej Singh: In terms of the size of your co-op, could you compare it, in terms of where it is relative to other co-op peers or small utilities? What’s the scale, distribution miles, that kind of thing for our audience. Can you contextualize that?

Amanda Opp: From a co-op perspective, we are considered a large co-op. We have 73,000 meters, 5,000 square miles of service territory. We maintain about 1700 miles of overhead line, which is a lot for a county program. We came out to 14 meters per mile, which is pretty dense for a co-op, too.

Philip Charlton: I’m surprised. I think of Montana as big, open spaces. Nobody’s out there. But obviously I’m wrong.

Amanda Opp: We’re all in the same place. There’s not many of us. We’re all together in one city. 

Philip Charlton: I’m curious, what were the challenges putting together the wildfire mitigation plan?

Amanda Opp: That’s a great question. For me, the biggest challenge was making sure that what we were putting in the plan were things that we were actually doing or were able to do. After a year, we looked at it and could see that there were things where we really need to stand up a team to make sure we do all these things and have the right people in the right seats on the bus. I think there was a bit of fear going into it because you don’t want to be that person who creates a wildfire mitigation plan and then doesn’t execute it. It’s great to have one.

You probably want that for your insurance, but are you working the plan?

Tej Singh: I’ve seen some with larger utilities where your eyes glaze over because the document is huge. You bring up an interesting point of how to make something that’s living versus dormant.

Co-op Challenges

In your time at the co-op, can you describe for us what’s the most complex thing you’ve had to face?

Amanda Opp: Well, starting out by myself, the program started out very small.

It was me as a supervisor with one in-house tree crew and two part-time contract tree crews. It was way under-resourced for the work that needed to be done. I found that to be very challenging. Another part, we live in an area that’s full of natural beauty. People escape to here. It’s something people have a certain viewpoint on. With Glacier Park and so much natural beauty here, finding the balance between doing what we need to do and what our members and the public expect to see. How to be good stewards and prove that we really care about the resources and that we want to network with all the agencies out there.

For one person, you end up spreading yourself very thin. Trying to get to know the folks at the Forest Service and DNRC and building relationships with them because there’s a big fear factor. If I can speak for a lot of cooperatives, the liability that’s involved if our facilities are the ignition source for a fire. That’s probably the biggest challenge.

Stakeholder Management

Tej Singh: What I took away from what you said was the balancing of a variety of stakeholders and knowing that the liability is there. Helping folks understand that while still managing the aesthetic of beautiful, green, and forested areas.

As a homeowner, I have a funny story. I’m Canadian. Born and raised in the greater Toronto area. I remember one time I didn’t know what was going on, but I had a beautiful tree. They marked it and somebody came by one day and cut it. I didn’t know that it was marked. I guess it was encroaching. At the time, I was visibly upset. This is before I had any understanding of this industry. And now I get it now. Right? I understand. There’s this balance of making sure that you’re protecting the infrastructure, but at the same time, knowing that people love their trees.

Amanda Opp: California is a great example. It’s tricky. It’s interesting because the wildfires in California have really been, I don’t want to say a blessing for us, but in a way, they’ve held benefit for small utilities east of them because we really see what they’re dealing with and can learn without going through those pain points.

It benefited us in a way that I am very grateful for. Just being able to see what’s being done and the reaction to that, because we can do that as a preventative measure. Before we were forced to because, in a way, we will probably be regulated to do things that they’re doing eventually. To just have a little bit of a crystal ball on what we need to do in that arena has been a big benefit.

Tej Singh: You’re spot on. Frankly, I don’t think a lot of people knew about utility vegetation management until what was happening in California. And I really feel for all the utilities and the residents. It’s complex. It’s such a big bear of a problem to deal with. Everyone’s doing the best they can to figure it out, but it brought a huge spotlight for everybody. And it helped, not just from a wildfire perspective, but from an event perspective, whether it’s a hurricane, storm, fire. All of a sudden, grid reliability became that much more in focus. And you know, we can see the expectations of PUCs. Vegetation management budgets from west to east have started to expand. There’s a better understanding and a desire to be preventative. The data and the actions that are following what happened out west is very consistent with what you’re saying.

Amanda Opp: It’s nationwide. We’re seeing a reaction in Washington with infrastructure and grid resilience funding coming.

We hope to take advantage of that. I know other utilities and cooperatives are, too. I see a lot of attention and public education on it. It’s good for the industry. It’s good for all of us pushing these plans forward.

Utility Arborist Association Involvement

Tej Singh: Again, congratulations on your UAA appointment. In terms of your involvement, what sort of impact or mark are you looking to make with that great organization? Obviously, Phil was a former president led that initiative very, very well under his tenure. What are some of your goals with that organization?

Amanda Opp: I’ve been pretty involved with the UAA Women in Utility Vegetation Management. I’ll continue to do that. It’s really near and dear to my heart. I recently started working with the member engagement portion of the Utility Arborist Association with the focus on cooperatives and I truly hope to engage cooperatives within the organization and bring them into the fold. I’ve seen so many benefits being a member of that organization. I’ve had people who support me and support the program that I’m working on. Just to feel that overwhelming support. It can feel really lonely. When you see people at the UAA, the light in their eyes. When they light up and understand what you’re doing. It’s been a great organization for me to be a part of. To be able to give back and put my heart into it in a way that could move it forward for future generations is just an exciting prospect for me.

Philip Charlton: I congratulate you, that you’re giving back. I think you said you’re a facilitator and you’re working with UAA. One of the things we try to look for is industry leaders to have as guests, and that is a consistent theme. They’ve all given back in some fashion. The true sign of leadership.

Amanda Opp: I hope to continue with education as part of something within the UAA. as well. And I think my official assignment will be as the champion for the safety committee, which is very well established. I could see myself having to get up to speed with all of that talent. And I’m excited to work with all of them, as well.

In Closing

Tej Singh: We’ll end up seeing each other in Pittsburgh this year. That’ll be exciting. Before we wrap up here, I definitely wanted to thank you for making time to chat with us today. I’d love to have yo u on again as we present some of our municipal/co-op-focused solutions. We can have a broad conversation and you can rip us apart on terms.

Amanda Opp: I would love that.

Tej Singh: I’m so new to this overall space for the last few years and coming across so many interesting things. I’m very fascinated by the municipal/co-op segment of the market. So you and I will have lots to chat about, but offline and hopefully in Pittsburgh.

Amanda Opp: Well, I have a huge love for co-ops. I would be happy to share any of that.

Tej Singh: I look forward to getting your feedback. Amanda, thanks for making time today. This was a lovely chat.

Amanda Opp: Thank you for having me. I’ve been watching every episode and I’ve seen all the heroes of the utility arborist industry on your show. I’m like, oh my gosh, these are big shoes to fill!

Tej Singh: You were fantastic. Your perspective is valuable. I think you might be the first guest we’ve had that speaks from the position of the co-op. We hope that we can continue to diversify our conversations and include some of the smaller players, their needs and requirements, as part of the broader discussion.

Amanda Opp: Well, you know, the cooperative way is all of us with our small voices equal big.

Tej Singh: Aggregation is key.

Amanda Opp: Cooperation among co-ops.

Philip Charlton: That’s it for this episode of the Trees and Lines podcast brought to you by Iapetus Infrastructure Services. If you like the show, please give us a rating of five stars on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes, or ideas for topics or guests in the future, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at Treesandlines@iapetusllc.com. We’ll chat with you soon.

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