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Mobile Data Rules the Road

May 28, 2015
NB Power reviews 10 years of the benefits of implementing mobile distribution software.

In 2004, Canadian utility NB Power rolled out in-field distribution design software to streamline the utility’s field design processes. The purpose was to enable field engineering to create sketches on the fly and automatically generate construction units, construction estimates and staking sheets while ensuring design standards are met with a built-in rules engine. For the first time, the utility had a complete picture of all its physical assets and customers according to location.

It did not take long to get the GeoDigital software up and running — just six weeks to implement and train 230 power line designers, project engineers and customer service representatives. The impact was immediate. Today, each field worker uses a ruggedized laptop computer to enter all surveyed work and create detailed accurate designs in a single trip. The job information is added right on top of a geographic information system (GIS) background, created by uploading maps from NB Power, other utilities and New Brunswick’s provincial land registry group, Service New Brunswick.

NB Power mobile distribution design software is a key asset for generating routine work orders as well as for doing storm damage assessment and the subsequent repairs.

More Than Design

NB Power soon expanded the GeoDigital software to other areas of its business, including vegetation management where it is being used to survey and analyze vegetation around the utility’s critical power lines as well as to identify potential clearance issues. Additional processes and groups have been integrated into the workflow and design software:

  • Right-of-way management. Agents are notified of easement requirements by the system, and they use the geographical background to automate the generation of legal documents.
  • Thermovision camera inspection. Camera operators launch the results of their inspection using the software, and work packages with background maps are auto-generated along with the thermovision report. This gives repair crews complete information in the cab of the truck; no paper moves around offices and work locations.
  • Asset health. Using the GeoDigital work-order system, asset health managers track assets as they are installed and removed by the operational crews. By integrating the software with other enterprise applications, including ESRI’s GIS and SAP’s finance and accounting software, NB Power is able to track asset information throughout its life cycle — from design, to construction, to operation and to maintenance until retirement.
  • Distribution and transmission vegetation. NB Power has been able to automate the inspection and assessment of vegetation on the distribution and transmission systems. NB Power also can view all historical costs of tree pruning service providers, allowing the utility to better manage its vegetation management budget.

With the solutions for distribution design and vegetation management in place, NB Power is able to integrate all essential data needed to perform jobs in the field, from maps to the state of physical assets and property ownership. Since its implementation of the workflow and design software in 2004, NB Power has not looked back.

Vegetation management in action shows the end result of NB Power’s use of mobile work management software in the integrated inspection and assessment of transmission and distribution vegetation.

A Return on Investment Retrospective

Now, more than 10 years later, the integrated mobile work management solution is still an essential tool used by more than double the number of NB Power’s workforce — from 230 in 2004 to more than 500 today and growing.

Every distribution and vegetation job in the province is mapped through the software, helping NB Power to manage its tree-trimming requirements more accurately and efficiently. Operations are far less reactive today, with the utility now able to monitor and manage its rights-of-way to mitigate the risk of outages proactively.

The benefits of moving from a paper-based system to an electronic one are numerous. Besides maximizing the efficiency of each field worker, it also has reduced the number of handoffs, with one person in control of the information from data collection to the resulting work order. But, by far, the biggest benefit has been in financial returns.

By improving the quality and format of information, NB Power has enabled the delivery of much better service, resulting in greater profitability. With data entry workload reduced by 60% and minimal filing of hard copies needed, NB Power has reduced the clerical staffing demand by fivefold. Other data, such as streetlight maintenance, is also mapped by the system. When a streetlight outage is reported, it is identified on a website. Mapping the data has reduced the time required to identify streetlights and create work orders, because NB Power can quickly and accurately identify where the streetlight is and whether it is one of the utility’s lights. In addition, crew time to repair has been reduced by a minimum of 30 minutes per work order. This is a result of the mapped information and GPS assisting the crew in locating the exact light being reported.

The mobile distribution design software is the basis for providing the clearest information to crews in the field.

Saving Time, Increasing Revenue

Another major savings has been time in the distribution design process. Ten years ago, after detailing a job in the field, supervisors would spend weeks putting together a work plan on paper before deploying crews. Now the job can be detailed in the field and staking sheets produced in as little as 15 minutes.

Before moving to the software, time spent in the field would be doubled or tripled in the office. Knowing where the lines and structures are in the field saves a lot of time compared to using paper maps.

For transmission personnel, the up-to-date location of each access road for transmission structures is on the stakeout map and available on the workers’ tablets. Accurate access point information is key to both the safety and efficiency of crews traveling to remote areas to perform work on transmission assets. Personnel must not only know where access exists, but also whether or not the time of year renders the access point impassable. The combination of GIS and GPS greatly reduces the potential of wasted time attempting multiple access routes before finding one that works.

There also have been huge improvements in NB Power’s engineering processes. This includes the implementation of new electronic workflows, management reports and quality control with job package checks. For example, when a power line designer finishes detailing a project, the job progresses directly to operations, and the system automatically performs checks and balances throughout the process. Assuming all requirements are met and the project meets quality-control standards, the job is assigned to a crew, and a materials list is released to store rooms within as little as 30 minutes. With the old paper-based system, crew assignments and materials lists were rarely available the same day, and the larger projects could take up to a week.

Implementing these systems has reduced costs and increased revenue by more than US$4 million annually. By implementing these systems, NB Power has been able to minimize billing errors and take on extra projects (for example, Telco/CATV work) that would not have been achievable without a dramatic increase in staff. By integrating the workflow processes to include communications utilities in New Brunswick, NB Power can keep them up to date on any network expansion or maintenance activities, enabling them to perform installations of other equipment on poles, tracking the work completed and time spent, and generating additional revenue in the process.

With a digital picture of its assets and streamlined distribution workflow processes, the utility can plan many different types of work more precisely. With the ability to assign work orders based on availability, skill requirements and travel zones, NB Power has been able to provide clearer information to dispatchers and, ultimately, the crews in the field. Asset health tracking, unmetered billing and thermovision all have been integrated into workflows for improved planning and work management.

The mobile data is available in the service truck cab and on tablets. Information to support decisions is available immediately instead of requiring a trip back to the office to look at a piece of paper.

A Tool for Transmission

The system’s success in optimizing NB Power’s distribution vegetation maintenance led the utility to implement an identical tool for transmission in 2009. This was adapted to suit the transmission business, such as the different ways cuts are made, the equipment used and the use of herbicides, which is not common in distribution.

The system also helps the transmission business to meet tough regulatory compliance mandates set by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and Canadian Standards Association by demonstrating all of the actions and expenditures made to mitigate vegetation hazards, avoiding heavy fines for outages caused by vegetation.

The system has enabled NB Power to respond better to its customers and to keep them informed during outage events. The utility launched an interactive, public-facing power outage map that is integrated with its website and displays color-coded updates by region to provide customers with a widely accessible, visual representation of outages. None of this would have been possible without the tools and process controls that have allowed NB Power to manage its customers more effectively as well as the assets that provide their electricity. Ten years ago, almost 20% of customers were not mapped to a transformer, making it extremely difficult to identify specifically which customers were impacted by an outage. Now, when NB Power calls customers or knocks on their doors, the data collected syncs directly with the utility’s systems from a tablet.

The tool also benefits other areas of the business, as well. NB Power now can provide cost estimates for new construction work right from the site, providing customers with information they need to make decisions. What was a two-day turnaround now can be achieved in less than an hour. Once a quote is approved, it is synced from the field, and in 24 hours, an invoice is in the mail with no human interaction required.

Looking Ahead

The software has been so successful all distribution and vegetation field work — from vegetation management to line design and engineering — will not be done without it. NB Power is now looking at other ways it can use GeoDigital software to integrate and automate business processes to improve its efficiency, safety and reliability. This includes systems for transmission planning, mobile technologies for contractors, vegetation cycle management, line patrols and storm damage assessment.

In one of the world’s most beautiful yet challenging environments, managing assets, controlling vegetation and keeping the power flowing are not easy tasks. With an integrated mobile system, NB Power has been able to meet and exceed its challenges. It has a decade’s worth of return on investment to prove it.

Peter M. Fox ([email protected]) is a professional engineer and certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt with 23 years of experience as an electrical engineer with New Brunswick Power. He has held positions as planning engineer, regional engineer, regional manager of engineering and, presently, senior provincial field operation engineer. Currently, he is responsible for providing technical support to field personnel in all aspects of regional engineering, keeping abreast of emerging technology, providing technical input to new systems and existing system enhancements, evaluating technological options, facilitating the implementation of new technology, evaluating engineering and auxiliary processes, making recommendations and leading implementation of improvements.

NB Power

NB Power, formerly known as New Brunswick Power Corp. and New Brunswick Power Commission, is the electric utility in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, wholly owned by the government of New Brunswick, a Crown Corporation.

NB Power is a progressive, sustainable and customer-focused utility whose 2,300 employees provide quality service and safe, reliable electricity at low and stable rates. Electricity is generated at 13 facilities throughout New Brunswick and delivered by power lines, substations and terminals to more than 350,000 New Brunswick homes, businesses, hospitals and schools. There also are interconnections with the neighboring provinces of Québec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the state of Maine in the United States.

In 1918, approximately 20 organizations produced power in New Brunswick with no standards to govern rates or services. Recognizing the important role electricity would play in the province’s economic development, government enacted the New Brunswick Electric Power Act on April 24, 1920, establishing The New Brunswick Electric Power Commission.

Every decade since the 1920s has offered NB Power a different set of challenges, but the goal of providing a safe, reliable supply of electricity for New Brunswick has remained the same.

NB Power manages 28,000 sq miles (72,520 sq km) of territory. Its assets include 12,934 miles (20,815 km) of distribution lines and 4,256 miles (6,849 km) of transmission lines. Managing these lines becomes even more complex when considering the high percentage of NB Power’s rural service areas. Despite New Brunswick’s remoteness, its people are one of the world’s most connected, making reliable power supply ever more vital. Broadband Internet is used by 100% of its schools and institutions, and more than 90% of its homes and businesses.

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