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)
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.
Accordng 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 infromation 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.
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.
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 powerline 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.
Cross Bore Detection and Mitigation
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.
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.
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.
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.