Enhancing Utility Operations with Project Management Tools

The utilities industry is massive.

Gas, water, and electric companies employ over half a million workers - serving roughly 155 million households in the US.

The infrastructure grid that connects utilities to these customers is valued between $1.5 and $2 trillion dollars.

Managing this massive infrastructure is big business, and most utilities place high priority on effective asset management.

Consider the complex grid that brings water, natural gas, and electricity to your home or business: power plants, transmission lines, underground pipes, meters, and a host of other materials.

These physical assets must be monitored, repaired, and updated to ensure the smooth delivery of services. But this system is aging quickly.

Maintenance problems are common, and even when everything is working as it should - effective management is still a herculean task.

Project Management offers an ideal solution for any utility looking to enhance their asset management approach. From connecting data sources to improving risk management - project management tools and techniques can be used across a wide range of utility scenarios.

Benefits of Project Management for Utilities

Compared to other industries, utilities have been slow to embrace new project management (PM) methodologies and the booming PM software industry.

This is not entirely surprising.

Utility capital projects are slow and intensive. The raw materials, civil engineering, and physical labor must be carefully planned in order to complete the project on time and without error.

In such a context, Agile and other fast-moving, iterative approaches simply don’t apply.

However, as the utilities landscape changes it's become increasingly clear that project management software - which offers holistic tools and a more generalized approach - can offer significant benefits.

Connecting information silos

Each utility company is a vast operation with a dispersed workforce. There are dozens of different jobs within each sector, but most fall within one of two categories:

  • Field - Employees traveling in trucks to repair transmission lines, read meters, and make physical updates to the grid
  • Office - Workers behind the scenes handling customer service, administrative work, management, and information technology (IT)
field crew

This physical divide - where employees are conducting work in very different locations - often creates information gaps.

When field teams gather data, there can be a 24 hour delay (or more) before it reaches analysts and project managers in the office.

Implementing project management software and strategies can connect these two worlds by enabling real-time data sharing and communication.

According to the Aberdeen Group, equipping field technicians with mobile devices and work management tools can increase productivity by 27%, and reduce repeat visits to field sites by 60%.

Improve risk management

Major utility companies are responsible for tens of thousands of physical assets. Overseeing this vast network translates to a high level of industry wide risk.

Power outages, leaks, floods, and property damage all fall within this risk category. Effective risk management requires having as much information as possible about an asset's age, location, maintenance history, and underlying issues.

Ideally, information on each asset is stored in a database. But for day-to-day operations, the industry is still dominated by paper records - making it difficult to anticipate and predict unwanted events.

Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) have become crucial tools for managing aging assets. Syncing these systems with field ready project management tools can connect the information stored in a CMMS to need-to-know parties throughout the organization.

Combine this with the implementation of IoT technology - sensors, drones, and wearables - and utilities can track and report on real-time events. Put simply, the easier it is to capture, store, and share information - the more effective utility risk management becomes.

Unify existing platforms

No single tool can provide a complete solution for every utility task or challenge.

a computer connected to other platforms and devices

Some tasks require survey-grade GPS for pin-point accuracy in asset locating and positioning. Other necessitate measuring gas particles in parts per billion.

These tools are just the tip of the iceberg. CMMS platforms, geographic information systems (GIS), digitizers, and mobile devices are all very common within utilities operations.

Here's a real world example. From 2013-2018, telecommunications integrated GIS into their operations at a rate of nearly 11% annually.

Whether it's Procore, Trimble, legacy GIS, or some other system of record - the right project management software can connect them all - expanding the benefits of each throughout the broader operations ecosystem.

Use Cases for Project Management in Utilities

Project management has a variety of applications in built-world industries and projects.

For example, Projects Integrating Sustainable Methods (PRiSM) - a project management methodology focused on the long-term impact of the physical asset within its environment - is very common within construction and real-estate.

We covered the benefits of project management strategies and tools above, but we also want to consider practical application.

How can project management be used in the day-to-day management of an entire utility network? Keep reading to find out.

Construction site management

Think of the vast infrastructure required to deliver gas, water, or electricity and you'll quickly realize that utilities companies are in the construction business.

Construction sites are plagued by information silos and duplicative work. Not only does this slow operations, but it is prone to human error in the data transfer process.

kanban project management

Modern cloud-based services sync data - from blueprints to on-site photos and parcel information - to ensure real-time updates and eliminate the lag caused by converting information on paper into office computer systems.

Accurate and up-to-date data is crucial, as construction is a delicate process when it concerns electrical transmission and subterranean infrastructure. In the past two decades roughly 2,000 people have been injured due to errors during excavation.

Mapping databases are revolutionizing utility inspections through accurate information prior to groundbreaking projects.

Whether it is extending a power line or building a natural gas storage facility, digital and map-based project management aligns utility companies and contractors to improve communications and reduce redundancies.

As companies build the $130 billion smart gird of the future, syncing construction with digital analytics will be crucial.

Deep dive:

[White Paper] End Rework and Disputes with Digital Data Management - 52% of rework is caused by poor data and miscommunication between stakeholders - costing $31.3 billion in the United States alone. With effective digital data management, these massive losses are preventable.
[White Paper] Eliminate Wasteful Spending for Contractors - Identify & eliminate $1M in unnecessary construction costs. Inefficient processes are at the core of these unproductive expenditures. Digital data management offers a powerful solution.
[EBook] Increase Construction Margins with Map-Based Software - With $30 trillion in project spending by 2030, declining productivity, and low tech adoption - construction is due for a technology overhaul.


Cross bore detection and mitigation

The nationwide pipeline network that delivers water and natural gas stretches roughly 321,000 miles.

This is an impressive infrastructure, but it is old and poses a number of problems and potential dangers. Utility providers are constantly updating these assets. Over the past ten years, roughly 5,600 miles of pipeline have been replaced on average annually.

Cross bores are a particular concern. These are unintended intersections in the out-dated system, where newer pipes intersect with older pipes. The intersecting pipe can cause backups in the water system, and if the gas-line is punctured it can cause a leak or explosion.

Thus, utility companies actively carry out legacy cross bore inspections to update the old system, and new cross bore inspections when undertaking expansion projects.

Risk management is paramount, and modern project management platforms have revolutionized this process.

Through predictive algorithms that analyze mapped data, companies can reduce their inspection times and increase public safety.

Deep dive:

[White Paper] Reduce Cross Bore Risk with Cloud-Based Work Management - With an estimated 1 million cross bores in the United States, utility run cross bore detection and mitigation programs play an essential role in public safety. Effective cross bore programs require mobile-friendly tools ready for use in the field.

Vegetation management (VM)

The U.S. electric grid contains 160,000 miles of transmissions lines.

Those lines are susceptible to extreme weather events and other natural elements like wildfires. In addition to major events, day-to-day operations are concerned with gradual vegetation encroachment - trees and powerlines simply don’t mix.

kanban project management

Historically, utility workers made regular route checks to remove danger trees, as well as prune and trim other vegetation. As you can imagine, this process is slow, labor intensive, and involves a lot of guesswork.

It is also costly.

Utility companies in California, for example, spend roughly $250 million a year on vegetation management. Failing to remove a danger tree can lead to a power outage - which can cumulatively cost utilities companies billions.

Modern digital solutions improve this process.

Companies today can couple satellite imagery with GIS data within map-based project management platforms to accurately and strategically clear vegetation encroachment before it causes a bigger problem.

Deep dive:

[White Paper] Transform Vegetation Management with Digital Field Tools - Between 1984 and 2013, outages caused by vegetation contact increased 285% - an upward trend that's continued through the past decade. Utilities face increasing pressure to find solutions or face financial penalties. And yet, most still rely on traditional maintenance cycles and outdated field devices.

Conclusion

The utilities market is changing quickly.

Companies are planning ahead, thinking about alternative resources, customer choice, and the need for better data technology solutions to build a better grid for the future.

Map-based project management with integrated intelligent data solutions are no longer just an option, but a necessity.

One solution is Unearth's geospatial field operations platform, OnePlace.

OnePlace empowers work where it happens, reducing information silos and increasing visibility through a map-based interface.

The OnePlace platform connects field users to back-office data, improving workflow efficiency, communication, and transparency for all stakeholders.

Want to see OnePlace in action? Request a demo or contact us at info@unearthlabs.com.