Data as an Asset

Data as an Asset

Emeka Igwilo, Vice President of Operations Support, Southern Company Gas

Emeka Igwilo, Vice President of Operations Support, Southern Company Gas

As utility operators, one of the most critical responsibilities we have is that of caretakers of the vital infrastructure that our communities rely on to survive and thrive. Nothing drives this solemn responsibility home like an extreme weather event. While the temperatures may still be warm, I am already thinking to the coldest days of the year and reminded of the Polar Vortex that swept the Midwest earlier this year with subzero temperatures that felt more like 50 below zero with the wind chill.

In the days leading up this extremely cold weather, I was struck by the Public Service Announcements issued by various local and state leaders imploring residents to stay indoors and avoid the cold. The underlying assumption that the collective infrastructure that assures the comforts of their homes with power, water, and heat will be there as a constant refuge from the dire conditions outside. What those PSAs did not mention is the tireless work by the utility operators to ensure the underlying infrastructure continued to function, safely and reliably in the frigid conditions.

Their work is mostly invisible to the average consumer, but utilities know that these assets are the underpinning fabric of modern society. Every customer deserves the peace of mind that we’ll be there to keep their homes warm, businesses running, and families safe. This happens through effective asset management—a competency that utilities have continued to hone as demand profiles and regulatory requirements continue to change. An increasingly critical piece of this competency is the data of those assets.

As an industry practitioner with more than 20 years’ experience, the criticality of data about our assets and the correlation between the quality of that data and the effectiveness of how operators manage their assets has become increasingly clear. Traditionally, utility operators have developed expertise through experience on how to install and maintain their assets. Most operators recognize that the components of plant deployed to deliver their product to their customers have not significantly changed in the past 50 years. In essence, if you time traveled a utility technician from 1950 to 2019 and showed them the basic layout of a natural gas pipeline installation, the chances are that they would quickly understand what is being done and be able to participate in the modern-day construction activity effectively.

Now juxtapose that with the same technician being handed a cellphone! While that example may seem hyperbolic because of the obvious technological improvements in control room technology and pressure regulating devices over the decades, I believe the basic point is still valid—the biggest change in our space has been around the information about the asset and how it is leveraged.

In the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that attaining comprehensive detail about what assets are in service and precision about where they are, provides utility operators the tools needed to enact effective asset management. It has required a cultural shift for operators, who previously regarded the data about their asset as ancillary to the physical plant, to rethink this notion. It is my belief that increasingly, utility operators have and should begin to look at asset data as a critical and integral part of the asset and foundational to an effective asset management program.

This realization cannot be relegated to just the functional units tasked with construction and installation of assets, it should cascade throughout every functional unit in the organization and identified as a critical filter when any strategic investment decision is made around asset deployment. Bottom line: the data about an asset is part of the asset. As most operators realize, the minute the asset is put into service, the importance of the data becomes more profound as decisions around its operation and maintenance rely entirely on asset data.

One of the major benefits of an effective asset management program is the awareness it should infuse into multiple functional groups within the utility operator’s enterprise. A good asset management program is easily accessed by users to enhance their awareness of the asset condition, allowing them to make better decisions. A great asset management program has the requisite integration across the technology platforms to provide intelligence to users. This integration is critical for the effectiveness and usability of an asset management program.

The inefficiencies embedded in a fractured asset management solution where users either have to hunt through different disconnected systems and perform adhoc extracts in lieu of true integration has only recently begun to be quantified by operators. These inefficiencies are typically difficult to quantify as a justification for the investment needed to build an effective asset management solution because they are not concentrated in one functional unit, but rather cascade throughout different areas of the organization. Nevertheless, organizations owe it to themselves to review how the quality and accessibility of asset data can transform their operations and begin to align their IT strategy.

For years utilities have placed varying emphasis on asset data and its importance, which makes the challenge very daunting when the scale of the investment needed to implement the required solutions is calculated. Some utilities opt for the incremental approach, establishing more precise standards for data collection going forward with the view that over time, as aging assets are replaced, the baseline data quality will slowly improve. While this strategy is in itself not a bad one, it must be made in concert with the underlying IT systems that operators utilize to manage their assets.

At the end of the day, as it has been for over 100 years, the life-cycle for utility assets has not materially changed. It still follows the same cadence: install, operate, and decommission. For a utility to effectively operate and fulfill its compact of reliability and safety with its customers, it must develop an effective asset management program that is underpinned by quality, accurate, and accessible data.

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