THE CHOREOGRAPHY OF CHANGE
While the need for these major replacement and upgrade projects is great, widespread implementation has been slow, often due to the lack of resources needed to map assets and plan and execute the work. But utilities must begin somewhere, and there is no better place than with the development of an underground distribution replacement road map that works within the bounds of their existing organizational and infrastructure framework. Such a road map typically includes the following steps.
STEP ONE: DEFINE REPLACEMENT CRITERIA
Given the finite resources a utility has at its disposal, it’s important to identify goals and objectives, as well as to establish criteria that will guide the identification and selection of underground line replacement projects. For example, criteria might limit projects to a particular kind of equipment, cable of a certain age, or needs within a specific geographic area.
STEP TWO: ESTABLISH PRIORITIES
Using the established criteria, create a list of potential projects. Next, this list needs to be prioritized. This can be achieved by measuring each project’s construction and operating costs against the long-term value it will deliver to customers. Value might be measured by a range of metrics, such as outage reductions, outage duration, number of customers impacted, and other factors indicative of a reliable and resilient power network.
When establishing priorities, it’s also helpful to take a closer look at the physical environment for these projects. This investigation should be designed to identify any constraints that may limit the project scope, such as railroads, highways, bridges, waterways, wetlands or land acquisition requirements, or that require coordination with other utilities.
STEP THREE: COLLECT AND REVIEW EXISTING UNDERGROUND DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM DATA
While most utilities have some type of asset management system, many such systems are not yet fully digitized and comprehensive for both overhead and underground assets. The information in these systems is often incomplete, incorrect or altogether missing. It may also be accurate from an electrical connectivity perspective, but not from a physical location perspective
There are many reasons for this. As-built construction documents are sometimes unavailable because paper records were poorly maintained, lost or never converted to a digital database. Institutional knowledge that can be helpful in piecing this information together may also be lost as an aging workforce retires.
To see that decisions are based on current, accurate information, utilities are advised to conduct a physical inventory of system assets, recording the type and condition of equipment and the location of existing circuits. 3D scanning, data collection and storage systems have streamlined the data collection and transfer processes. The goal: to create a complete, inclusive picture of the distribution system, including any gaps in information that need to be filled.
STEP FOUR: REASSESS PRIORITIES
Information is a powerful thing. The inventory-taking process may uncover records that are incomplete or based on assumptions rather than documented evidence. It may also identify new areas that require focus or demand that the system be viewed in a new or different light. In some cases, utilities may be required to rethink initial assumptions and reprioritize needs before time and effort is expended on a formal scope of work.
STEP FIVE: DEVELOP A SCOPE OF WORK
Developing a scope of work involves project execution planning, including resources, budget and a schedule that identifies project milestones and goals. For example, the scope of work might specify the amount of underground cable to be replaced or the number of circuits to be upgraded.
The scope of work should also proactively identify ways to future-proof these systems. In addition to identifying current upgrade needs, it should contemplate how new development or redevelopment may impact future needs. An assessment of stakeholder management is also helpful. The needs of permitting agencies, property owners that will require buyouts, adjacent utilities and local municipalities should be identified and included in timelines.
STEP SIX: ALLOCATE DEDICATED INTERNAL RESOURCES
Determine what internal resources are available and able to work on underground distribution projects. The utility should also consider what it is willing to assign to outside consultants and contractors. Well-staffed utilities may prefer to have internal staff manage risk, rather than assign such risk to outside resources. Others opt for the opposite approach. Each utility must define its internal capabilities and risk tolerance while balancing partnerships with outside service providers, which can provide experience that is nonexistent internally.
STEP SEVEN: SELECT A PROJECT DELIVERY METHOD
The scope of work, timeline, available in-house resources and funding sources will dictate how utilities approach the actual design and construction process. For smaller, internally managed efforts, they may choose to focus on one project at a time and outsource certain design and construction functions to consultants and contractors. For more aggressive timetables, they may seek new or additional funding sources.
A more programmatic approach may be in order for larger efforts, including those with projects that affect adjacent infrastructure, require extensive utility coordination or the rerouting of numerous circuits, or must be executed around line outages. In these cases, a utility might engage a program manager who oversees and coordinates multiple individual projects.
Utilities that choose to outsource significant portions of these complex assignments may gravitate toward the engineer-procure-construct (EPC) method of project delivery, an approach that obligates the EPC contractor to execute and deliver a project within an agreed-upon time and budget. EPC enables utilities to transfer significant responsibility for risk management to their contractors. Because many EPC processes occur in parallel, this method also can often result in more condensed schedules than a traditional design-bid-build approach. Utilities that perform these functions in-house with limited outside support, in contrast, take ownership of these risks, and will find those functions competing with other projects internally to secure resources, which could result in schedule constraints.