May 2021, Vol. 248, No. 5

Spotlight on Utilities

Automated Compliance Management Aids Recordkeeping

Special to Pipeline & Gas Journal  

Amid growing Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulation and evolving technology, gas utilities are being called to modernize and improve business processes to meet safety and compliance goals. Going through this process will inevitably cause organizations to experience change on many levels.  

The Energy Cooperative’s crew leader Scott Bowman and GIS Specialist Brett Korsok survey work area. (Photos: The Energy cooperative)
The Energy Cooperative’s crew leader Scott Bowman and GIS Specialist Brett Korsok survey work area. (Photos: The Energy cooperative)

“Change is hard,” said Jill Durbin of The Energy Cooperative (the Cooperative), “but sometimes, we need to acknowledge that it’s necessary, and that it can be good.”   

Durbin notes that as a company, the Cooperative is motivated to transform while serving 65,500 members. Entering their 85th year of service, the Cooperative is a progressive electric, natural gas and propane member-owned utility headquartered in Newark, Ohio.   

Unlike its investor-owned counterparts, revenue is reinvested and allocated to their members. Guided by and dedicated to their community, the Cooperative is highly focused on innovation and responding to changing member needs.  

As the geographic information supervisor (GIS) supervisor for the Cooperative, Durbin has experienced digital transformation firsthand, and with the support of her team, she has assisted in managing change for the utility.   

Shortly after she joined the utility in 2010, a goal was set to bring the Cooperative’s electric and gas distribution data into the same format from MicroStation, paper and computer-aided design (CAD) over to Esri ArcGIS and ArcGIS Online. Within a few years, mobile crews were able to use iPads in their trucks to spatially support work in the field.   

In 2016, the utility built an ArcFM connectivity model and began to digitally support over 150 inquiries per day with their “Call Before You Dig” service.   

“We went from manual paper review to an electronic means of actively solving problems seemingly overnight,” recalled Durbin.  

A worker checks a valve location.
A worker checks a valve location.

Most recently, the Cooperative implemented digital utility support company UDC’s GIS-based gas compliance solution, which automates much of the planning and scheduling processes of compliance management and provides digital mobile collection, monitoring and compliance reporting capabilities within a single enterprise application.   

“Supporting seven to eight audits per year, we were looking for a software solution that would help us with tracking,” said Cooperative Engineer Chris Storts, responding to feedback from Public Utility Commission (PUC) auditors.    

The utility had been searching for an electronic collection and reporting means for their compliance programs.  

Building compliance on top of GIS was an important step. The Cooperative wanted to improve current workflow to comply with efficiency and consistency standards. For the utility, moving to a compliance management system was not just about automating co mpliance, it was about updating to the most automated compliance technology.   

Through a compliance manager, the Cooperative can automate how work needs to be done going forward. Digital collection not only improves quality of survey and inspection data, but it also helps ensure all required data are provided for leak scenarios encountered in the field.   

This is accomplished through validation logic applied to inspection form fields. Global positioning system (GPS) integration with the application further enhances quality while GIS integration allows upcoming maintenance work to be generated, based on GIS inspection dates and up-to-date regulation criteria.  

A compliance management system will be used at the Cooperative by gas managers, supervisors, dispatchers and field crews as they work to complete leak surveys, critical valve inspections and leak rechecks. The utility plans to include cathodic protection surveys in the future.  

Stort and Durbin are working closely with their teams to facilitate change and compliance automation.  

“We are a mix of young management and experienced boots on the ground, which is a great combination for our utility,” Stort said. “When it comes to change, our team can see the value in moving to digital. Throughout the company, we are motivated to do away with paper.”   

Both Stort and Durbin point to the importance of having their leaders on board with going digital and say that leadership has been instrumental in moving things forward at the Cooperative.   

The Energy Cooperative has found that the key to helping team members to adopt change is to give them the right tools to make their job easier from the very start. This allows them to take ownership of and embrace program changes at their pace.   

They are preparing for full production this spring (2021) when crews return to walking the lines as winter ends.  

Additional compliance programs will be put into production with a gradual rollout approach.   

As work progresses, Stort and Durbin will be able to monitor and track compliance status and verify work completion using the built-in monitoring and reporting dashboards of the solution.   

“We knew we needed a better way than paper for our auditors … compliance is a difficult paper trail to sort through,” she said.  

The Cooperative is looking forward to being able to apply their new reporting methods and have a complete compliance picture to share in the spring of 2022.  

A preliminary review of reporting functionality has drawn positive feedback from auditors, they said. They also noted that not too many utilities have anything similar.  

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