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Insights into the ideas and innovations that are transforming project planning and delivery

How Cloud Technology Helps Utilities Overcome Market Challenges

It’s no secret that power companies today are contending with a staggering array of challenges. Between a shifting regulatory and environmental landscape and disruptive innovations such as smart grids, the sustainability shift and the Internet of Things (IoT), utilities are staring down change of historic proportions.

Indeed, according to a recent Deloitte report, most utility executives now firmly believe their companies will be completely transformed in as little as three years’ time. As a result, many of these firms are already mapping out new ways to weather hardships and harness all opportunities.

Visionary utilities will do that by applying technological best practices to critical facets of their businesses.

Capital Planning Heads to the Cloud

Capital planning in the utilities industry is complex to say the least. Predicting costs, measuring return on investment and ensuring desired outcomes is difficult. With long project timelines, billions of dollars in assets and large amounts of capital needed to sustain and grow businesses, effective planning is critical to not only profitability, but also in meeting stringent regulatory requirements. In fact, improving the way these projects are selected and managed can deliver savings of 15 to 30 percent, according to McKinsey research.

Unfortunately, too many utilities still try to address capital planning using yesterday’s manually driven solutions, such as spreadsheets, instead of more efficient digital solutions. This simply won’t cut it.

Considering the rate of change, forward-thinking utilities are turning to cloud-based portfolio management solutions to position for the future. These solutions are designed to deliver a bird’s-eye view of everything that might influence the success or failure of an organization, including key performance indicators, costs and funding/budget status. They can help utilities map out every step of project lifecycles, from planning, building and operating key assets to their ultimate retirement.

Having a cloud-based system has the added advantage of creating a central, widely accessible repository for collecting information to advise planning. In addition, it establishes a hub where both internal and external stakeholders can share ideas about how to improve the business.

In capital planning, “ideation,” which is the gathering of information from various people involved in a project, is also becoming increasingly important to success. For ideation to be effective, stakeholders-which in many cases include the public-must be able to collaborate, so the data must be both centralized and accessible by all key participants without punching holes in the organization’s firewall.  

Sustaining Projects and Small Caps – the New Normal

There aren’t many electric utilities building billion-dollar power plants anymore. With limited budgets and a desire to avoid the risks, not to mention the delivery struggles of large undertakings, most utilities are instead investing in multiple small projects with faster timelines.

The challenge with such small projects is that they entail multiple teams working on many smaller efforts simultaneously. This means that if a utility doesn’t have a centrally accessible way of ensuring visibility, planning, control and executive oversight across these projects, they could fall behind schedule rather quickly.

To solve this, many utilities are considering a combination of technologies. Many will begin with a cloud-based project and program solution. But the solutions they choose might depend on their need for specific capabilities, such as templates, mobile field status updates, field-initiated change requests to monitor potential budget impacts, and resource tracking.

More importantly, utilities driving multiple small projects will need to rely on analytical tools to understand how all projects are progressing – collectively – and what they deliver to the business. Down the road, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will play a considerable role in automating many repeatable, manually intensive, small project-planning processes – but most utilities are not there yet.   

Optimizing Maintenance

Utilities are always looking to maximize returns from existing assets, but eventually every asset must be taken offline for maintenance to optimize process and production. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, more than two-thirds of organizations fail to get their assets back online on time according to Aberdeen Group.

The reason? In many cases, it’s because of poor scope development, a lack of solid data, using too many niche products and relying on outdated and manually intensive technology.  

What’s more, while these maintenance projects are meant to improve efficiency, in far too many cases poor management has the opposite effect. Delivery delays from scope creep, inefficient resource supervision and other factors can lead to higher costs, lost productivity and angry shareholders (for public companies).

Many utilities are finding that having a cloud-based project management solution can also help address challenges around planned outages. A typical outage can involve 10 or 15 different departments and dozens, if not hundreds, of workers and subcontractors. Tracking these moving parts is tremendously difficult, so finding technological solutions to ensure collaboration and coordination should be of paramount concern.

The right project management solution can help organizations to better understand, manage and control the scope of an event by providing tools for resource requirements, procurement planning, identifying and tracking purchase lead times, directing contractor and engineering obligations, and providing daily status and cost updates to key stakeholders.

Similarly, these cloud-based solutions can provide a common data platform so that everyone involved in a project is working from a single view of the truth.

Of course, this only works with a rich solution capable of providing a strong back-end infrastructure and the ability to support analytical tools for understanding what’s happening across the organization. In addition, organizations must be able to capture status updates and emergent work from mobile devices and applications in the field. Soon, this could also involve connecting with sensors or RFID devices that field workers would carry on their persons, allowing the project management solution to capture, aggregate and analyze data – without anyone having to act by physically typing something out in an email, text, online tool or spreadsheet.

Conclusion

Visionary utilities are not only thinking along these lines, they are already implementing project management technology to improve their ability to survive and thrive in this rapidly changing industry. Every utility will be a radically different company in just a few years. Now is the time to prepare.

This article originally appeared on Electric Light & Power.

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