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Automating processes helps utility and service providers mitigate risk

This article first appeared in Utility Dive

For Utilities and their service providers, the gas explosions last year in Massachusetts and California’s Camp Fire is another unfortunate reminder of the importance of having rigorous record-keeping procedures and systems in place, with safety-oriented operational procedures that are transparent, efficient, and timely.

In fact, a recent settlement was reached for $80 million in infrastructure repair costs alone just eight months after the Massachusetts explosions. This tragic event echoes headlines from a few years ago when another utility company was slapped with a record $1.6 billion penalty for fatal San Bruno explosion. After a long investigation, investigators believe, "...flawed record-keeping and shoddy maintenance, coupled with the PUC’s lax oversight, were the key factors that caused the explosion." Of course, these pale in comparison to the devastating effect on communities due to the impacts of wildfires caused by Utilities.

As with most Utilities, several Utility Service companies support various construction and maintenance activities. In the case of the Columbia Gas explosions, there still may be liability exposures for those service companies as well. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Columbia Gas had been in the process of replacing old cast iron pipes with new plastic ones. NTSB is looking at whether construction the company was doing in the area on Thursday afternoon played a role."

Working with Utilities and Utility Services companies, I see there are two key takeaways from these events:

  1. Utilities have a regulatory requirement to accurately capture and record (typically in geographical information system [GIS]) an inventory of their network assets – what they are, where they are, how they are connected, and details about those assets for maintenance and operational purposes.
  2. Utilities use various construction and service companies to build, repair, and maintain their assets – and they sit at the heart of the process of recording asset information.

As a result, both Utility and Utility Service Provider companies have a duty to ensure that they have a high degree of precision in how they record, report, and maintain asset records.

Despite this, there are still many Utilities and Service Providers who do not utilize digital technology in the form of handhelds, mobile devices, and automated workflow. They use paper-based maps, files, and even notepads to record this important information in the field. These "work packets" are then sent to the Utility main office so they can be captured into the GIS mapping solution. Yet, this process is manual, inefficient, lacks appropriate quality controls, and can take months — all exposing Utilities and Service Providers to unnecessary risks.

Luckily, there are low-code workflow application solutions that help to deliver greater transparency, accuracy, and efficiency to record-keeping activities—both in the field and in the office—by digitizing data collection and automating workflows.

Utilities benefit from modernizing the typical paper-based workflow around design/build/as-building by dramatically improving the accuracy of asset data entered into the GIS. This ensures that all stakeholders have the same network/asset information to manage their operations, whether that be an outage, customer service, finance, or asset registration. With this accurate data, Utility companies can better mitigate risk. Further, they can improve operational efficiencies through streamlined processes, including real-time reporting, automating approvals, and eliminating redundant or double data entry. It would seem obvious that the opportunity to reduce opex costs would be tangible and achievable too.

Additionally, by automating manual processes, Utility Service Provider companies can reduce or control their operating expenses, delivering exceptional customer service, and improving safety — all gaining a competitive advantage as a digital service. In today’s competitive world, more and more Utilities are expecting their service providers to be adopting more digital capability within their own operations to deliver a more consistent and modern service to the Utility.

Ross Smith is an energy and utilities expert at PA Consulting

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