October 1, 2020
Small Utilities & The Future Of Flexibility & Training
Enabling Utilities’ Staff to Learn More From Each Other
In some organizations, having a smaller staff can give each person a clearer perspective on the unique benefits provided by the software tools and processes they use. This is especially true when it comes to the downsides that can accompany certain bright and shiny new software solutions and related technology platforms.
Specifically, it is the downside from loss of opportunities for daily collaboration between team members, and a reduction in the amount and depth of shared tasks between apprentices and their mentors, due to streamlining across many different departments at utilities. This issue arose decades ago as utilities started becoming more technologically advanced and were able to reduce field crew sizes based on efficiency improvements, for example from electronic work management and mobile data software solutions.
Awareness of the problem is key to finding ways of counteracting such issues—and sometimes new software solutions also help solve those problems.
Counteracting this downside, we see new software and tools for training and managing the knowledge base of experienced staff. These tools have been helping utilities carry on their long-standing traditions of best practices and have even helped in creating new communities based on specific needs and interests.
Anyone who is a member of the many Connected Communities sponsored by NRECA already knows the wide-ranging benefits of sharing ideas with hundreds of colleagues at other utilities, all of whom easily update one another about how they are addressing new trends and adopting new ideas and solutions.
Best practices for solution providers include offering their user communities learning tools that fit their needs, from traditional materials to the latest on-demand libraries of videos addressing specific needed skills and solution areas, to in-person and virtual live classrooms, webinars, and other venues.
It all comes down to using the latest tools in the best way, helping to better cross-pollenate ideas across different groups. This positive trend includes new training techniques and related platforms and benchmarking tools as well as knowledge bases and best practices for on-boarding new employees.
SMALL UTILITY GIS PROFILE:
NORTHERN WASCO PUD
Northern Wasco County People’s Utility District, located in The Dalles, Oregon, has added Futura solutions to its core enterprise software solutions from SEDC.
JUMPING IN WITH TWO FEET
Northern Wasco PUD took a “jump in with two feet” approach when it came to GIS. They currently have Futura GIS, Staking, and FieldPro, as well as Futura Flex for Mobile Workforce Management, and plan to roll out Futura’s OMS down the road. In addition, the utility’s approach for advanced analytics includes Futura Catalyst and SEDC’s ReportIQ, all further enabled with customer, financial/accounting and other data from across the enterprise from core SEDC solutions for FIS, CIS, Customer Portal, and the AutoCue IVR Suite.
GIS MODELS OPTIMIZE EQUIPMENT SIZING, INSPECTIONS, AND WORK
Jacob Kellogg, GIS Technician at Northern Wasco PUD, has been using a wide mix of the utilities’ Futura modules to improve upon asset tracking, inspections, and other processes at the utility that require more accurate and detailed models of specific types of equipment, such as transformers and voltage regulators.
Kellogg says, “We have been running FieldPro’s field inspector for plant assets, with future plans for home energy assessments, which will help homeowners get rebates for replacing inefficient appliances with energy-efficient ones, and improving the insulation of their homes for additional energy savings.”
The utility has also been using Futura GIS to build and analyze models for tracking work activities and gaining new insights about equipment on the distribution system, such as transformers and substation switchgear. This has been helping them create best work management practices for planned maintenance and to create cost-saving reliability improvements by ensuring optimal sizing and operation of equipment, and better planning the tracking of spares.
With a lot of construction projects for big data centers in their territory, the utility is now able to better ensure ultra-high reliability, which is required in substations that provide electric service in a mission-critical fashion to these new customers and others where the utility is contracted to provide electric service and backup power for critical loads.
Kellogg reports that along with their use of Catalyst and the GIS-based models and databases they’ve interconnected, they’ve also been able to relocate transformers that had been installed at residential construction sites where only a portion of the homes ended up being built, due to the impacts of economic downturns. These transformers were oversized for their current location, and by replacing them with smaller transformers, they could be re-installed at other locations rather than have their extra capacity go to waste.
VIRTUAL TRAINING IN RESPONSE TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC: PARTICULAR BENEFITS TO SHARING BETWEEN DIFFERENT UTILITY TRAINEES
Kellogg was one of the virtual attendees from a dozen different utilities for a recent Futura training class for GIS administrators. It was a uniquely designed class, which helped participants learn how to improve their administrative work and key processes in Futura Indigo and Flex. The virtual class also enabled Futura staff and the dozen utilities involved to learn from one another by being able to communicate, with each participant opting to work at their home or office, in real-time in a live, on-line environment.
Dan Matey, Manager of Learning and Development at Futura Systems says: “Indigo is making it easier for everyone to set up workflows and perform and track them more easily. When we designed this class, we set ourselves some high bars and I am proud to say we met and exceeded our high expectations.”
One of the big challenges for the Futura team is that they wanted all the participants from different utilities, who were going through their tutorials at the same time, to be able to do their administrative exercises in a real environment. This meant that the roster of virtual class attendees from different utilities needed to have “real” simulation experiences that would meet their varying requirements, with network models and assets and workflows that would not violate any confidentiality associated with data from any particular utility.
Futura’s Matey says: “We created a learning environment here at Futura to enable our virtual training to work in special ways, and we addressed interesting challenges you do not have to deal with for other virtual classes such as ones about mapping or staking or other software solutions in our suite. The lessons we learned and the challenges we met in setting up this class are now enabling us to bring new tools and improvements for all our other virtual class design work.”
Among the challenges was the fact that this admin class had 12 students making administrative changes to the learning environment version we had set up—but in the real, you would not have 12 administrators making changes to the same environment at one utility. We created methods for having this function seamlessly for each user, even though the various configurations were all stored in one single database.”
For Jacob Kellogg and the other virtual participants at other utilities, the mix of teacher-led instruction and interaction between personnel from different utilities provided great benefits. The lectures were also well mixed with additional separate lab sessions and additional assignments over the course of a day between instructional days.
As Jacob Kellogg said, “The regular virtual instructional classes were great, but in addition the labs and the additional sharing of ideas and experiences with people at other utilities was also sparking very helpful insights that broadened my horizons.”