Danny Petrecca of Locusview Prepares for DISTRIBUTECH Discussion on Utility Processes and Systems of Record Amid Grid Growth & Digitalization - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]

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Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Jan 25, 2023

The rapid digitalization of all aspects of the utility industry has somehow dominated headlines while also falling under the radar. Leaders across the power industry recognize the importance of collecting and analyzing data, keeping digital records, and modernizing the way of doing business, but that still leaves some organizations taking shortcuts or not understanding the full capabilities of the digital future of utilities.

Half-hearted steps towards a digital utility are insufficient and incomplete, and they even risk giving the power company a false sense of security that they’re doing everything they have to do. Pushing past those misconceptions and into the realm where the internal DNA of how a utility does business to integrate the solutions of tomorrow is nothing new to Danny Petrecca, Vice President of Business Development at Locusview.

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Having spent a career at the intersection of energy and digital tools like geospatial information gathering and analysis, few people would have a better perspective on how and why now is the right moment for utilities to go all-in with the digital solution. And that’s the message he’s primed to share at the presentation he’s set to give at DISTRIBUTECH on February 8 in San Diego. That session, titled ‘How Will the Rapid Growth of Electric Infrastructure Impact Utility Processes and Systems of Record?’ will cover how digital construction management supports the rapid growth of electric infrastructure and inspire leaders on how to improve the accuracy of a utility’s system of record.

For the Energy Central Community Member attending (or thinking of attending) this year’s DISTRIBUTECH, Danny sat down with us for a conversation about the topic he’ll be presenting on to give a teaser for what you can expect to learn if you opt to join him next month. Keep reading, and if you have any thoughts or questions for him ahead of DISTRIBUTECH, be sure to share them in the comments below to start the conversation before even showing up at the conference floor!



Matt Chester: To start off, can you introduce yourself to the readers in the Energy Central Community who might not be familiar with you? What’s your role in the utility industry, and how did you find yourself there?

Danny Petrecca: I've worked in the utility software arena for the better part of my career, which has been almost 22 years. I've always been involved in the enterprise side of utility software, starting with companies like Miner & Miner, which became Telvent which became Schneider Electric. Through that time, I was always working on GIS systems of record, graphic work, design solutions, mobile mapping, OMS, ADMS, and other users of infrastructure data. I’ve also played in the IT ecosystem for utilities through a number of roles, whether it was from pre-sales to running a product management team or running the entire product strategy for a software vendor to international sales and business development to partners and alliances.

I’ve been fortunate because, over that 20-something years, I've had a front-row seat to see how the trends and drivers in utilities from the late 90s to today have evolved.


MC: Can you talk more about that, how have they evolved?

DP: Well, utilities all have their own personality. They're slow-moving and risk-averse, but the IOUs are regulatory-driven and rate case driven, so you see how macroeconomic trends and government stimulus play into that as well. In the early 2000s, utilities were all driven by new financial rules. It was all about needing a good accounting of all assets to value the company and its rates properly. There was also a lot of growth going on in utility infrastructure at the point, so utilities focused on how to get work orders done faster to drive their financials. They were very financially and asset management-driven in the early 2000s.

Then in 2004 or 2005, when the first “smart grid” stimulus hit, it was then all about real-time and the idea of “smart grid,” though I put that in quotes because people don't even know what smart grid is anymore. But even so, the smart grid stimulus from the federal government was mainly used for AMI.

After the mid-2000s when utilities had spent tens of millions of dollars in asset management, work management, GIS, they then swing to put in ADMS and feeder automation infrastructure. Amid all those changes, you get these ebbs and flows of either incidents (like San Bruno) or financial changes (like the housing crash in 2009). You get to see this unique overlay of how the macro trends in the economy, the utility trends, and the technological changes over those 20 years drive how utilities act.


MC: Very interesting. Well, we’re here to talk today about DISTRIBUTECH and the presentation you’re going to be giving on the impact of grid growth on utility processes and systems of record. What’s the elevator pitch for why those attending DISTRIBUTECH should circle your session in their agenda?

DP: What we're trying to get people to see here is that amid all the big trends you're seeing in utilities today-- whether it's undergrounding or EV charging stations or storm hardening or fire prevention with all these things wrapped in with stimulus from the federal government-- the current systems and processes that utilities have for construction as-builting are not prepared for the future.  Massive amounts of new construction will put undue pressure on an already under-sourced, inefficient, and time-consuming process of getting projects built in the field and having an accurate record of what was built by the construction crews in a timely fashion. Utilities for decades have had this process where they use very digital systems to plan out this new design. They analyze the project needs, and they engineer it down to a very high level of detail with digital systems that they've spent tens of millions of dollars on, but they send that job packet to the field in a thick paper folder. The construction crew is tasked with not only building the project to spec but also describing the details of the materials they use along the way – they need to provide an “as-built”. In reality, they don't do it most of the time. They just note that they built it “as-designed”. Then that thick packet of paper, which could get lost in somebody's truck and sent around for months, makes it back to the utilities back office and is used to update their highly digital systems of record manually.

What I’m saying is that the time from planning to construction execution to system of record closeout is just too long. It's inefficient, it’s manual, and it’s wrought with inaccuracies. There's a lack of understanding of the data, and the fidelity and timeliness of the data can't drive modern operational systems. And that's just steady-state blue sky utility operations.

Now, the federal stimulus is giving utilities all the money they need to build new infrastructure, but they are lacking in two main resources - the contractors to build the infrastructure and the supply chain to buy transformers and other critical equipment. The stimulus is good for the industry, but with these constraints, it poses the age-old problem that utilities have to do a heck of a lot more with a heck of a lot less.

We see the construction workflows at utilities as the last bastion of inefficiency and digitization and utilities, and that's what Locusview does and what we’ll talk about in the session: how can you arm construction crews with an easy-to-use digital construction management solution that allows them to do a lot more with a lot less. You can give them the ability to capture as-builts against the design easily, but not make it feel like they have to become a work management scribe or an engineer filling out details about Compatible Units. We’re looking forward to discussing how all these technological advances, and our solution in particular, can help people be more efficient in the field.


MC: How commonly do you find leaders at utilities are aware of how much of a problem this is? Do they come to you knowing it needs to be solved, or are you doing a heavy lift of educating them on how and why this is a problem?

DP: A lot of our role is in education and value assessment because utilities tend to get mired in their legacy processes and a mentality of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ But now, a few things are starting to catch their eye. With Locusview, we proved this sort of technology with many gas utility customers deploying Locusview digital construction management. They see the value of more accurate as-builts for their infrastructure.

That said, electric utilities are starting to take note of it, but it does take a lot of convincing. A lot of the time, I'll talk to electric utilities, I'll describe digital construction management, and I'll make an analogy to digital as-builting. They’ll say, “Yeah, we already do that”.  But, when I ask them to describe what they do, they open up a folder full of PDFs. And that’s just digital paper, that’s not something that can digitally integrate into your GIS or your ADMS, or your asset management system. So a lot of times, they don't know it's a problem that they have. But they're starting to see that they may think their data is OK, but once they start to feed that data to the downstream consumers of that data like an ADMS system, they start seeing issues with load flow or risk to an ROI on something like voltage reduction.

One of my favorite examples is with a large utility probably 10 years ago looking to build an ADMS. They were going to do voltage reduction so they would avoid the construction of a 250 MW coal belching peaking station. And when they implemented the DMS, they pulled a pilot feeder circuit into it, and the load flow and state estimation wouldn't converge. Everybody's arms were in the air, and the whole ROI for this procurement is at risk. What was happening here? The cause of the issues was the inaccuracy of simple attributes in their GIS, such as the conductor's material and size and the connected phase of transformers. Very simple data about what's strung on a pole and what's hooked up to a transformer was incorrect. So they went out and did a field inventory for one circuit, brought that circuit back in with accurate data, and the ADMS load flow converged. That was beautiful. So, you look back at all the studies around the importance of GIS data for these systems, the reason that data is not getting to the GIS accurately is because of poor data collection processes during construction. They're just saying whatever was designed is what we built, or they're describing it wrong, or it gets lost, and they just post the design. It's that last gap in high-fidelity data that needs scrutiny. How can you feed that $50-100M ADMS system with the paper process? It just doesn't match.


MC: So when it comes to talking to people who aren’t as plugged into this area as you are and they’re trying to get their utility data and GIS systems off the ground, what are the regular mistakes you see or the common pitfalls?

DP: I think the common pitfalls I see specifically with trying to solve a problem of technology adoption by field crews is the sentiment that it simply can’t be done. And that attitude persists because they don't seek technology built to match the field's personas, values, and processes. And I was guilty of this for 20 years when I worked with the GIS company. I spent 20 years trying to get people in the field to use mobile GIS and lost my hair doing it - it was always rejected.  It wasn't until I came to Locusview that I realized the historic rejection of field technology was because it was too complicated, it didn't fit their workflows, and it didn’t match the personas using it. We spent four years at Locusview making sure the mobile application was acceptable to field crews, and if it wasn't, we scrapped it. Once we got that right, we knew the application would be used in the field. It fit the workflows because it was built for and by the people who ran these workflows in the field

The other pitfall is falling into the hype of a lot of new-fangled buzzwords and innovations out there. I'm all for innovation, but when someone's talking about AI, ML, big data, VR, and AR for mobile, my question is, “Can we just try to get them to put down the pencil first?”  What Locusview is doing is trying to get crews in the field to use simple tools - how will you get them to put on VR goggles? How about we just start with making data collection in layman's terms easier? Then we could talk about next-level technologies. We’ve got to get the fundamental problem of getting digital data collected in the field before we talk about virtual data and everything else.


MC: As we close our conversation, I want to end up something more positive, so I’d love it if you could share a specific successful case study where everything went the way you think it should.

DP: The first one that comes to mind is our lighthouse account, as it’s a multi-state gas utility distribution and transmission project. They took a strategic partnership view to work on this process with us. It wasn't simply a software procurement, it was them bringing us in to share their goals of making data collection during construction consistent through 1,000 different crews (half of which were contractor crews) across five states. And they took on the process of looking at their workflows and not just customizing software to match their workflow, but instead creating a workflow that can be digital and have the software work within it. So, they took a strategic partnership approach with us many years ago, and it's one of our best success stories. Today, they're doing so much more with material tracking and traceability, material reconciliation, and integration with work management, and it's setting them up for success as they move to a new GIS and a new graphic work design system in the future. We reduced the time it takes the data to get into their GIS by 70%: it used to be weeks, and now it's about a day.

Another interesting industry project that we are participating in is supply chain asset traceability for an electric project (SCATE). There's already a barcoding standard for plastic gas assets that allows crews to rapidly collect important asset attribute data by basically pulling the trigger of a barcode scanner. In the electric world, there is no such standard for barcode structures or marking standards for a transformer, switch gear, or splice kit. But at the same time, there is a growing need for electric utilities to not only use the standard marking approach for capturing data about a specific electric asset but to help them in the supply chain management and to comply with rules about components of critical infrastructure being made in America versus other areas, as well as aiding in material recalls and issues. Our co-founder Alicia Farag is leading the IEEE SCATE program, bringing together over 30 utilities, manufacturers, and industry groups such as EPRI and EEI to make this a reality.

If people are interested in this, they could come to talk to us at our Locusview booth at DISTRIBUTECH (5517), or e-mail if they want to become involved and help us drive this standardization process forward.



Thanks once again to Danny Petrecca of Locusview for sharing his time and insights in this interview. Be sure to check out his session at DISTRIBUTECH ‘How Will the Rapid Growth of Electric Infrastructure Impact Utility Processes and Systems of Record?’ on February 8 at 10:05 AM PST. And if you’re planning on being at DISTRIBUTECH, be on the lookout for him as well as the Energy Central team on the conference floor.

We’re looking forward to connecting in person with our Community Members there!


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