For years, utilities and their contractors have shared resources for blue- and gray-sky days through a series of phone calls, emails, and manual hand-offs of rosters. This largely inefficient process for building crews and sharing resources has always been something utilities accepted as the cost of doing business – until now. What’s precipitating a change? Three factors serve as catalyst in my opinion.
First, there’s more daily work than ever. Earlier this year, research firm IBISWorld noted the market size of the U.S. utilities industry is $652.8 billion; they say it has grown on average every year since 2016. Along with that, utilities have fewer native crews to keep pace. A Texas coop told me that to keep up with new installs, contractors now handle the bulk of its daily work. Completing the work requires ever more coordination.
Second, utility professionals with a deep institutional knowledge about building crews for daily or storm work are retiring. These folks know the historical trends because they lived through them; they acquired know-how and developed processes to get crews and equipment where they’re needed. The pandemic has exacerbated retirements according to the Pew Research Center, which notes the number of workers 55 years and older is down year over year. Some of the long-tenured folks who know how to navigate the restoration reconciliation process, which has only gotten more complex, won’t be there to help next year or the year after.
Third, social media allows the public to document what might be forgotten or overlooked. Imagine a crew inadvertently crossing ever so slightly into a protected area to navigate a turn or set a pole. A landowner with a smartphone snaps a picture of the tire tracks and crew, then posts it with a complaint. Or a homeowner might upload to social media a few photos of a contract crew restoring service. Their utility sees the crew isn’t wearing all the required safety gear. That, in turn, calls into question whether the contractor received a safety briefing at their staging area. If so, did the utility document the training? If not, how would the utility establish liability if there were an injury?
A case in point
A West Coast utility recently explained to me how they, too, once kept track of their contractors with spreadsheets, phone calls, and emails to request help, confirm acceptances, and investigate discrepancies in work orders, time logs, and/or invoices. They said the process was “a laborious, manual one.”
The utility looked for ways to root out the inconsistencies in tracking the activities of and communicating with contractors. To standardize its crew-building processes, they automated their process for seeing where, what, and how long their contractor crews were working. They say their new system offers a digital snapshot of which crews and equipment are available each day or even a week or more into the future. The utility’s approach enables it to handle more daily work and beef up tracking and accountability. For daily work, the utility says it can now document who’s working in its service territory, what skills and certifications crews have, how many hours crews logged, and more.
During storms, this West Coast power company notes how it speeds up requests for crews and digitally tabulates how many crews and what type of equipment managers have asked for and received in real time. Because their new way of working holds the latest version of a roster, they’ve automated all the time-consuming, back-and-forth updates and eliminated mistake-prone paper rosters, version-control challenges, and/or flat files (i.e., a flat database or text-only database). Contractors now update the roster of record if a situation dictates, and the changes show up right away on the utility’s resource-tracking dashboard.
Where we’re headed
Several year ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote the “The Tipping Point,” a book that explores how ideas and products reach critical mass. To reach a tipping point, says Gladwell, three things happen:
- People respected by their peers share knowledge of what they’re doing;
- there’s a unique factor causing the idea or product to resonate with people; and
- there exists an environment ripe for change.
The utility industry is ripe for change, especially in how it shares resources. There are technologies (both hardware and software) to automate virtually any process, improve efficiencies, customer satisfaction and reduce cost. And there are now utilities like the West Coast company mentioned above, as well as their contractors, who are finding success and sharing what they know with peers.
We’ve reached a point where utilities not only need instant clarity on which resources are available but also have the technological means by which to make that happen. It’s time to automate the steps in resource-sharing. By doing so, utilities can improve mobilization, speed up restoration and increase efficiency when requesting outside resources.
About the Author
Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operations, Product and Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.