Bringing T&D Construction Oversight into the 21st Century

It’s been common for some time that power substations are designed then constructed under the watchful eye of one of an electric utility’s staff engineers. It is how things have been done for as long as I can remember.

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By Larry G. Berg, PMP

It’s been common for some time that power substations are designed then constructed under the watchful eye of one of an electric utility’s staff engineers. It is how things have been done for as long as I can remember.

“Who’s your project manager on Substation Alpha?”

“Why, that would be John Smith, E.E.”

Trouble is, John Smith, P.E., has zero formal training in project management, and often the construction results are predictable: Substation Alpha takes three months longer to finish and is over budget by 30 percent.

Sound familiar? If you have worked on the transmission and distribution (T&D) side of the electric utility industry as I did for 29 years, probably so.

Finding Fault

It isn’t John Smith’s fault that he cannot get Substation Alpha online on time or on budget. He is responsible, sure. And he probably does the best he can, given the resources and training he has. Besides, his five other projects keep him up nights, as well.

In his four years of undergraduate coursework, none of his professors ever lectured John and his classmates on the value and importance of bringing a construction project home on course, on time, on budget.

Yet, when John was hired at the electric utility, there seemed to be a lot more to his job than ensuring power system integrity. He was asked to manage projects like Substation Alpha almost immediately and to deal with the technical design—which he felt pretty good about—and with budgets, cash flows, timelines and progress reports—which he was pretty much winging.

In the mid-’80s I was working in the project engineering section of El Paso Electric Co. I was not an engineer but was doing budget, cost and time analyses for the T&D division, as well as preparing testimony for company witnesses in regulatory cases.

I was interested in the concepts and potential benefits of project engineering and management, and, with the help of some Primavera software, proceeded to delve into an exciting world of possibilities. I spent countless hours doing data entry and printing massive, plotter-sized schedules that often were obsolete by the time the ink dried. But it was a learning experience, and I learned a lot.

I had observed for years that as a division, we were not successful in project management. But there were asset management techniques and software that showed great potential. Although the federal government and larger, more affluent companies had been practicing this discipline for years, to us it was a fledgling concept. For my company, this was virgin territory. I concluded that this is what we should be doing when managing projects. And I was eager to introduce the formal processes to the troops.

The troops, unfortunately, didn’t much share my enthusiasm—at least not at first. Management was supportive. And I think that eventually our engineers felt pressure to at least fill in some of the forms I had built for them—mostly related to business case development, project prioritization, detailed schedules and finely tuned cash flows.

We started many projects with high hopes and expectations of success. When project tasks began to slide, especially those on the critical path, it became harder to get people even to return my phone calls and e-mails.

I had become the enemy always asking about time lines and cash flows, but they provided the schedules and cash flows to me in the first place. I only was doing data input. And now I merely was asking the obvious follow-up questions.

Eventually, I made my way to the nonoperational side of the company and helped establish a culture of project management professionalism there. I retired from El Paso Electric less than a year ago, having served as the company’s director of corporate projects, resource and planning.

I’m not sure that construction projects in the T&D division run any more efficiently, under budget or on time.

Planning Ahead

One of this industry’s many challenges is to better equip future generations to face the T&D world in which they must toil. There will continue to be more scrutiny on project performance and budget integrity.

Engineering degrees should come with more business background, and I hope that’s not just wishful thinking. Not many degreed engineers simply solve complex technical problems while they’re locked in private labs with no accountability to time, quality or cost. The business world is about business; engineers must understand basic business concepts, at least.

In addition, new utility employees who will manage projects should be required to understand and use basic project management concepts or to become project management professionals as part of their career development. The management of most large utility projects is outsourced to project professionals. Incentives and disincentives often help drive schedule and cash flow for these contractors. Perhaps such a system of reward and accountability is needed internally, as well, for project management that will not be outsourced.

Some companies have project management offices that oversee projects across the organization, including T&D work. Many others, unfortunately, still rely on John Smith, P.E.

What are the basic concepts essential to project success? It’s easier to identify what dooms some projects:

Lack of proper planning: There is no substitute for good planning. Projects do not run themselves. Only a savvy, persistent project manager can plan and execute a successful project consistently. A simple business case, achievable schedule, budget and cash flow always will be beneficial, regardless of project size.

Lack of coordination: Many projects require the coordination of activities that must be performed by others, either inside or outside the company. Substation Alpha will need to have relay and communication work performed as part of the project, for example. But this work must be preplanned and coordinated from cost and timing perspectives with those departments responsible for performing the work.

Lack of cooperation: A good project manager should be able to solicit on-time assistance from other departments to keep his or her project on track. But office politics and personality conflicts often derail the best plans. This can be especially true if a project is not properly coordinated in the first place. During construction, nothing will elicit resistance from peripheral players more than their feeling they were not informed and consulted during planning.

Unrealistic schedule and cost development: It is human nature to want to build a schedule and budget that meets management’s preconceived demands or expectations. Schedules build themselves based on task durations and relationships with other tasks. I was asked once to help build a schedule for a new customer information system. I asked the department manager to list all activities that would be required, which she did. Then I asked her how long each activity would take and the relationship between tasks. This she also did, and I built the schedule in Microsoft Project with a September finish date. She told me it wasn’t acceptable; management wanted completion by July. I never heard from her again, and the system never went live.

Not managing the critical path: All projects have tasks that fall on the critical path. These are tasks that if delayed will delay the project unless corrective steps are taken. Other tasks do not fall on the critical path, and a delay on these typically does not affect overall project schedule. You must know the difference between tasks that are critical and not critical and report potential project delays as soon as possible. In addition, early detection of critical path task delays will allow more time and opportunity for course corrections that could bring the project back on track.

Fear of failure: No one wants to plan and manage a project that will be considered a failure—over budget, past due or just off course. But a common response to early suspicions that a project is over budget or off schedule is to ignore the warning signs, leaving the impression with superiors that all is well at Substation Alpha. Virtually no project of any significance runs its course without straying. Being a good project manager is like playing a race car video game; you’re constantly steering back and forth to stay on the road.

Project management, like engineering, can be learned and used for improved results. We wouldn’t expect a project manager with no engineering training to calculate a coefficient of friction or perform a stress analysis. Why would we expect an engineer with no formal project management training to bring construction of a multimillion dollar substation to completion as planned and expected? We can, however, give engineers the training and credentials to manage projects professionally with far more confidence and proficiency.

Berg suggests for all those tasked with managing assets a look at the Project Management Institute. PMI offers memberships, course work and reference materials at http://PMI.org.

Larry G. Berg is president of Berg LLC, a professional consulting services firm. He is a project management professional who worked 29 years for El Paso Electric Co. , having focusing much of his career in strategic planning and project management. He retired from the company in February 2010.


Digital Pens: Streamlining Inspections for Tracking Lines, Poles and Substations

By Kenneth Schneider, Adapx Inc.

Many electric utilities are working to improve inspection and reporting processes for lines, substations, poles and vegetation management. Immediate access to condition data can improve maintenance and streamline operations. In many cases, data collected to track these processes still is written by hand on printed forms, maps and computer-aided designs (CADs).

Many of these work flows have resisted data collection with laptops because of the work’s highly mobile nature and the challenge of complex equipment, training and support.

Pen and paper survives for familiar reasons:

  • There is no training required; anyone can fill out forms or mark up plans and maps.
  • Paper can be used in any environment—indoors, outdoors, rain or direct sunlight.
  • Large format paper maps and CAD prints enable a wide field of view—important for understanding and marking up extensive maps or complex plans.

Writing notes on paper is easy. The challenge is getting data off paper in a timely way. In many cases, data collected on paper creates an administrative burden. Completed forms, marked-up maps and CAD designs usually must be scanned or sent back to central operations to be entered manually. To minimize data entry, scanning and risks from missing documents, many teams have explored deploying mobile computers to field survey and inspection teams. In many field cases, however, teams have had trouble replacing paper with mobile computers.

For highly mobile inspectors and technicians, mobile computers can be cumbersome to carry during all inspection tasks because of their weight and limited battery life. Many crews have mobile computers that often stay in trucks while crews collect data on foot with pen and paper.

New software for digital pens, however, is helping teams get immediate visibility to issues and help reduce risk from missing documentation. Electric utilities such as American Transmission Co. (ATC) and Burbank Water and Power (BWP) are using or evaluating software solutions for digital pens to automate data collection and inspections for management of lines, poles and substations.

Digital pens and software enable field teams to collect data on paper as they always have while instantly scanning and digitizing the data. Data then can be shared with central offices either immediately through a cell phone connection or physically when the pen is returned to the office. The pen automatically can integrate handwritten data into Office, ArcGIS and PDF files, saving data entry time. Faster data access and eliminating data entry reduces risks from delayed issue reporting to data entry errors.

BWP is exploring digital pens to automate the paperwork associated with updating substation as-built plans. BWP manages an extensive network of poles, lines and substations.

A challenge was keeping the as-builts up-to-date; new redlines didn’t always make it back to the main office. Looking to digital sources, mobile computers were not an option for BWP because of the extra costs, such equipment, training and support. The easiest process was the current process: redlining large paper prints with a pen.

With software for digital pens, BWP can print CAD drawings of substation plans and mark them up with digital pens for automatic integration into the correct design files.

In addition to speeding up the process of getting digital redlines back to the CAD operator, working with digital pens also minimizes the risks of paper-based markups getting misplaced and master CAD plans remaining out-of-date, despite important as-built information having been noted in the field.

ATC also is looking at digital pens. ATC provides the pathway for power into communities over a network of some 9,400 miles of high-voltage electric transmission lines. Overhead transmission lines are inspected several times each year via helicopter to assess the physical condition of transmission lines, hardware, structures and rights-of-way.

ATC wanted assurances internally that equipment and rights-of-way were being patrolled and inspected adequately with these helicopter flights; penalties for North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) noncompliance can be financially crushing. As a solution, ATC replaced outdated reference map books with passive GPS, dynamic real-time mapping and an Excel-based forms solution for digital pens. The patrollers receive a digital pen and a stack of Excel-based forms printed on ordinary copy paper. With the digital pen and forms, all written comments have a digital timestamp recorded when the pen meets paper.

Now patrollers can e-mail each day’s work to ATC as soon as the patrol is completed. This information is imported directly into Excel and ready for internal processing with patrol GPS data without any data entry. Preflight patrol review can plan daily route schedules better based on cumulative flight logs from prior patrols to stay in compliance with NERC, and reliable documentation supported them staying in compliance with FERC.

Ken Schneider is chairman and CEO of Adapx, a company that helps a range of businesses and agencies speed data collection and streamline operations with Capturx software.

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