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Three Challenges Gas Utilities Face and How to Address Them

Kurt West
Apr 2, 2020 3:45:00 PM

Managing gas utilities comes with a number of challenges, and there are important lessons to be learned from the industry’s key players.

The Columbia Gas disaster in 2018 is an example of how the industry can learn and adapt. Federal charges against Columbia Gas of Massachusetts in Merrimack Valley were the result of the company’s failure to maintain the safety of its customers and the public, a critical component in a heavily regulated and impactful industry.

Improper management of gas utilities

Managing a local distribution company (LDC) comes with a lot of responsibilities. Not only do you have to remain in compliance with government regulations and city standards, but you need to consider the safety of the community.

In a recent article by the WWLP news, the head of the FBI’s Boston office stated that Columbia Gas disregarded safety issues, kept lousy records, and focused purely on its bottom line.

“Based on what we uncovered, I can tell you the company had no idea what control lines were in the ground. Their records were outdated, incomplete and unreliable. Columbia Gas could not provide our colleagues at the National Transportation Safety Board with an accurate picture of who their customers were in the immediate aftermath of the explosions,” the special agent in charge said.

Columbia Gas failed to:

  • Maintain reliable records of their control lines by updating their geographical information mapping system because it was too costly
  • Maintain customer and public safety
  • Hire experienced and trained workers
  • Follow Pipeline Safety Act guidelines
  • Coordinate and communicate with the city about ongoing construction projects

The fact is, the Merrimack Valley incident was caused by a management failure at Columbia Gas, and in the face of extreme risks to life and property, they knowingly violated the minimum federal safety standards.

Challenges of gas utilities

There are three main challenges when it comes to managing a gas utility, which are especially evident in the Columbia Gas incident.

  1. People
  2. Process
  3. Quality Assurance & Safety

Whether your utility uses contractors, has high turnover, relies on a few key people with key knowledge, or all the above, managing the human component of operations is challenging. We’ve all heard of or witnessed firsthand a contractor completing a report that a pipeline was inspected, only to learn that it wasn’t. Or that one of your key operations guys is retiring in the spring. These challenges are universal.

Being disciplined about a good process is harder than it looks. Gas utilities are faced with the complexity of 49 CFR Part 192, ensuring that the components of the regulation make it into ongoing daily SOPs for systems big and small is not a trivial task. Capturing regulations in SOPs is also only half the battle – ensuring that the field follows these and that activities are actively logged is another separate set of challenges.

Safety is a core value in the gas utility industry. Even if your people are well-trained and your process is well documented, how can a utility know that the proper work is being done to ensure safety and quality assurance? And – how can the appropriate stakeholders be notified if shortcuts are being taken, intentionally or unintentionally?

There is nothing more important to the gas utility industry than the safety of the customers and the communities in which it operates. In order to prevent mistakes, defects, and problems in the system, you need a mechanism to review and audit data on an asset. Bread-crumbing allows you to audit the history of activity on an asset in your inventory.

Additionally, a fundamental step in ensuring safety and quality assurance is records management. Up-to-date SOPs, GIS data, asset data, and work history are the foundation of an effective quality assurance program.

How to address these gas utility challenges

Here are some of the steps we’ve seen utilities take to address these issues in utility gas management:

Support sequenced work through digital workflows

Whether your team is repairing a piece of a pipeline or inspecting a District Regulator Station, it’s important that work is appropriately sequenced. The industry largely seems to rely on key man knowledge, paper-based SOPs, and some intuition to perform complex work and inspections.

The right sequence of tests, valve turns, and other activities can mean the difference between community confidence and complete disaster. Digital solutions like Utility Cloud give the field a highly configurable interface to perform work as designed by the appropriate utility stakeholders. Putting guardrails on the field and supporting visually enabled work for each specific type of asset helps mitigate operator error.

Use proper auditing and alerting

For activities such as leak detection surveys, it is critical for utilities to have a robust audit trail of work performed.

Besides assessing whether or not your business is meeting all of your required laws and regulations, you need to review your company’s current utility compliance efforts so you know if you have any at-risk areas that need improvement. Start by reviewing things like the total amount of violations you have had, how much they have cost you etc.

With Utility Cloud, you can optimize your operations and create performance metrics configured for real-time alerting.

Automate data management and compliance reporting tasks

Regulatory utility compliance guidelines change frequently, and with utilities and assets spread out over varying geographies, it’s harder to list assets and oversee reporting. There are plenty of ways to avoid regulatory violations and ensure compliance across your organization. Start with an automated utility asset management system.

Automated utility management software allows you to automate compliance reporting, create and submit custom data reports, automatically extract data and configure reports on the fly. Ongoing and automated monitoring helps keep track of your company’s utility compliance status and allows you to build a sustainable structure for consistent and efficient reporting.

Let this be a lesson

Working in and managing gas utilities is a very difficult job. In fact, the gas utility industry is one of the most hazardous industry sectors in the United States. That is why it is absolutely critical to remain in compliance and maintain the safety of your customers and the public.

Make your management system more efficient by using digital workflows as well as automated compliance reporting and data management systems in order to prevent failures and setbacks.

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