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Episode #96: ‘Tracking Gas Flows and Infrastructure with GIS and Other Digital Tools' with Angela Marra of TECO Peoples Gas [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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In today's modern world, everything has data behind it that can be tracked, monitored, reported, and analyzed. Nowhere across the economy is that truer than in the utility sector, where investments in infrastructure are major sources of public spending, where anything going wrong and interrupting energy supplies can be dangerous for customers, and where the rapidly advancing concept of the digital utility is forcing leaders to rethink what can be turned into data. Especially with the gas utilities who inherently put their expensive installations underground and reaccessing them for maintenance or repair is both costly and largely inconvenient, using advanced tools to track this infrastructure has gained a lot of steam in recent years.

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Among the leaders of this charge for better digital tracking of gas infrastructure has been TECO Peoples Gas in Florida. In the past few years, TECO has undertaken the massive project to implement GIS and mapping services for every single piece of gas infrastructure placed underground, tracking the model of the equipment, who the welder was, the precise location it lives, and so much more. To get a better insights into the how and why of it all, the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast is thrilled to welcome Angela Marra, Supervisor of GIS and Mapping Services at TECO Peoples Gas. She dives deep into this topic with podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to highlight the benefits of this practice and why other utilities should catch up to implement these solutions as well.

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, the show that brings leading minds from the energy industry to discuss the challenges and trends that are transforming and modernizing our energy system. And a quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now, let's talk energy.

Jason Price: 
I'm Jason Price, Energy Central Podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. And with me as always, from Orlando, Florida is Energy Central producer and community manager, Matt Chester. Matt, for the uninitiated utilities are an asset rich entity. Operating the grid takes lots of equipment, hard assets buried deep in the ground or hanging on poles up in the air. I've had a hard enough time keeping track of my car keys and yet utilities deploy staff and technology to manage all of this equipment. For utilities tracking these assets, maintaining these assets, replacing these assets is never ending. Keep in mind, these assets include piping and small switching devices buried deep underground, which may have been installed over a generation ago, long before the mobile QR codes or geospatial mapping systems, at least to where we are today.

Jason Price: 
But we've learned recently not only the investment required to do so, but also the importance of doing so. Can you expand a bit more of this for audience?

Matt Chester: 
I'd be happy to, Jason. Using digital tools to keep a running lift of all pieces of equipment that utility has may sound at first glance to be somewhat of a simple undertaking, maybe something a diligent accountant with a spreadsheet could accomplish on their own. But when you consider how utility may have thousands of miles of transmission or pipelines, millions of individual customers and meters, all of which requiring dozens of parts installed, replaced at different times by different crews and degrading at unique rates, and all of a sudden the reality of the problem and the challenge becomes apparent. And that's why the digital tools like GIS have become so essential to utility operators in these modern times.

Jason Price: 
Right you are Matt. Having an accurate, reliable and up to date record of all the assets controlled by a given utility is essential to optimizing efforts and efficient apportionment of money and labor. Our guest on the podcast today lives her days knee deep in these types of data, and she's seen firsthand how valuable they can be, but also the sheer magnitude of efforts required to do this job well. I would also like to point out that our guest is a trendsetter in this space. She is one of many of those unsung heroes at the utilities behind the scenes making our grid better. In the world of utility asset management, her novel techniques has helped her gain celebrity status and has sought after for her insight and creativity in solving day to day challenges in utility asset management. And her teams have done so at a rate and thoroughness that may be unprecedented among their gas utility peers. So, we're looking forward to extracting out of the key lessons learned for other companies who may want to replicate those results.

Jason Price: 
Joining us on the podcast booth this week is Angela Marra. Angela is the supervisor of GIS and mapping services at TECO Peoples Gas. And she's spearheaded the utilities massive undertaking to implement a GPS barcoding at TECO Peoples Gas in Florida. So Angela Marra, thanks so much for joining us today and welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

Angela Marra: 
Hi, thank you so much Matt and Jason. I'm really excited to be here. This is such a great opportunity for me and for the gas industry overall to be able to share my story with you in reaching such a wide audience. It's definitely a trending technology that we're seeing emerge, and hopefully I'll be able to shed some light on what's involved in such a huge, very worthwhile undertaking.

Jason Price: 
Absolutely. And we're thrilled to have you here to share this knowledge. So let's preface this conversation by giving your audience a clear picture of TECO Peoples Gas. What service area do you cover? How many customers do you serve? And under what model does the utility operate?

Angela Marra: 
Sure. So we have 14 separate service areas all across the State of Florida. So they range from as far northeast as Jacksonville, Daytona area all the way south to Miami, Fort Lauderdale. Then we go up West Coast, Fort Myers, Sarasota. We then go to the Far Northwest to Panama City, and then centrally we're located in Orlando, Ocala, Lakeland, Eustis, Avon Park. I think I named just about all of them. Of all those, we service about 500,000 customers. We are the largest gas provider in the State of Florida, and we have the good fortune of growing by leaps and bounds daily. We don't have any limitations for us right now on installing gas services. So it's definitely a good thing to be here in Florida. And having this program is one of the reasons why it's so important.

Angela Marra: 
For those of you who don't know how the gas industry works, we here we are a regulated utility that's overseen by the Florida Public Service Commission. So we have to be very structured in complying with requirements that are laid forth for us and for our customers. Which in the long run, this GPS program really helps us to be able to accomplish that.

Jason Price: 
That's great. Thanks for that important context. So let's get into the GPS barcoding program that you've helped drive. Give us some context in terms of what the tracking system for your assets was like before you began this new program.

Angela Marra: 
Sure. So as you can imagine, having 14 different service areas across the state tends to lead to 14 different ways of doing something. And the old way of when we would install a service is a crew would go out and they would have to draw by hand a paper as built, which would mark out where the services and the items in that service are located, but very subjective and lots of times very difficult to read the writing that is done. Also it takes a lot of time for them to create that as built. And then once that was created, it's then the job, it would be turned into the service area and it would have to get scanned into a computer and go into a system, then it had to be reviewed. It would take weeks, sometimes months, even to get that into our system of record. And sometimes on occasion, there'd be times that we have lost altogether that paperwork and every division had a different way of doing it. So, in a perfect world, they would've followed that system, get it all in, toss it into the computer and get it over to us so we could put it in our GIS system, but it doesn't always go as planned. We are only human, so it could be a mess at times.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, I can imagine. All right, so given the massive scale of something like this, especially with the territories that you have to cover, what motivated the GPS barcode project?

Angela Marra: 
So back in 2016, there was pending legislation from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which for those in the industry is referred to as PHMSA. So it was a rule noted by ASTM-F2897, which was the plastic pipe rule tracking and traceability. So, basically what PHMSA does is they take incidents that have happened in different locations across the country and even different countries, and they see what has occurred and what could be done to prevent it in the future. And then they go ahead and they create rules for companies to follow to try to avoid such circumstances in the future.

Angela Marra: 
So, what that legislation was asking operators to do was needed to know accurately where their facilities are, to be able to locate and quickly identify what those parts were that made up the system, whether it be pipe or valves, et cetera. And then also they needed to know who the people were who installed that. The purpose for all that is, if there was a part that was recalled, say a valve, they would be able to go into records and say, oh, we installed this particular valve here, here, here. We can go back and we could pull that out. Or this person, they maybe failed quality control of a weld. So we could go back and say, okay, this is where that person, the last few jobs that they did a weld on, let's go check them, make sure that they're solid. So all this came to be because of that pending legislation. However, it never did go into force because if you remember correctly, when the Trump administration came in they put a halt on all new pending legislation.

Angela Marra: 
So here we were, we started a project not to, to deep into it, but it was kind of put on pause. So we had a decision to make, do we just wait till they say, okay, we're going to go ahead and move forward, or what should we do? But we looked at it and as a team and with our leadership, we just decided it would be a really smart idea to move forward with it. Those were really good fact finding points that came from PHMSA that, yes, we really should know as best we can, where our facilities are, what they're made up of, who put them in. It just makes us safer as a company. We decided to just move forward with it and then we could be a leader in the industry for that type of program.

Jason Price: 
Sure, understood. All right. So you've been doing this for, well, you've been at the planning stage for several years and you're able to implement this program at the beginning of this year. So what are some of the tangible benefits that these GIS tools are bringing to various stakeholders? And that includes not just the business units at the utility, but the surrounding community and the customers themselves.

Angela Marra: 
Right. So what has come about from this. So just quick background, we did have our project started roughly back in 2016. We built up parts of it and then COVID hit. So we were on hold for a little while, and then we came back and we spent 2021 training. And then really we launched full time the beginning of this year, 2022. So since that time, we have been able to get into our system of record. I went into my system to check. So we have captured 168,624 features using our equipment, and those comprise over 11,000 bundles, if you will. So each time a service is put into the ground, they built a new house, they want gas service, we put a line to that house, that's considered a service.

Angela Marra: 
So in that short amount of time, that amount of features, if you will, have all been captured where we've been able to take a barcode scanner, scan the barcode, and we know this manufacturer made this particular item, we know when, we know that Joe Smith, he's the person who put it in or welded it, et cetera. We know within a shovel's width length of where those services are, and in many, many cases, it's actually within centimeters, the accuracy.

Angela Marra: 
We've no longer had to wait weeks or months for results of an as built to come back into our system, waiting on the paper and then going through the computer. So in a perfect world, a technician could go out, download their work, complete it electronically in a day, get it uploaded, and an inspector can go in and review it, and if it looks good, push it right through for our GIS team to review and could be in the system all within a day. So that's a huge, huge time saving. So, that saves money. It's peace of mind for the company, for the customer knowing and having that accuracy. And if something happens, we can go back out and say, okay, we were at this location. You don't just have to say, oh, it was like 10 paces from that big oak tree. You can say it was at this particular latitude, longitude. So it's been a huge, huge help.

Jason Price: 
Angela, what are some examples of the more notable challenges that came up that you didn't expect at the beginning of this project, and how did you overcome those?

Angela Marra: 
So I have a funny but true story, sadly, and this is a story that I've been told is going to be said at my retirement someday. So in 2016 is actually when I started at TECO Peoples Gas and this was my first break big project. And I can remember my manager saying, okay, we have this legislation that's pending, We need to come up with a plan and develop a program and get this rolled out all across the state. And I said, no problem. I'm up to the task. It'll take me six months and I'll get it done. And he just continued to laugh and just said, well, I think it's going to be a little bit longer than that. And like I said here, we finally went live in 2022 because of different challenges.

Angela Marra: 
So, one of the biggest challenges for us was COVID, like everybody else, we weren't allowed to go into the office. Now, of course, we had our field workers still doing work and installing services, but it's not the same. We had to train everybody across the state who does this, and with the limitations of not being able to be together or if you were you had to be six feet apart, et cetera, et cetera. That really put a couple year pause on our project. But some of the other things, that was a really unique encounter that hopefully isn't going to happen again.

Angela Marra: 
But other things that we came across that were an issue was our choice of equipment. We had chosen in the beginning to use an iOS device and an Apple iPad, and it turns out in the sun in Florida, A, you can't see it and in the heat it can shut down. We were doing some user testing and we were finding within 15 minutes that the devices were shutting down. That's not going to be good, that's not going to be feasible in the field. So that was one big thing. And we had already purchased our equipment. So lesson learned that I tell everybody is make sure you're really testing in all different situations, the type of equipment you want to use definitely before purchasing a heavy amount of that equipment.

Angela Marra: 
We also had an issue, like I said, across the state, we had a whole bunch of different ways of doing different processes. So we had to come together and figure out what would be the best practice for all of our division areas and make that into one set process so that we are all consistent. And then I think probably the other biggest issue we had was trying to decide who the end user was going to be with this equipment. 95% I'd say, of our services are installed by contractors. So we were trying to decide, are we going to issue equipment to each contract crew? Will we hire a third party to come in and do it instead? Will we train employees to do it? So it was a big decision to make. We wrote out pros and cons, discussed with many, many different people internally and externally. We came to the conclusion that our contractor crews are already out there, we anticipated we have about 200 contract crews. We were just going to furnish them with the equipment, train them how to use it, but that takes buy-in from them. You've always done it this way, but now you're going to start doing it this way. And as we all know, change is really hard to accept at times.

Angela Marra: 
So deciding who the end user is and formulating a plan to communicate to them the changes and the benefits of those changes, and being upfront and honest with the struggles that they can have with it, really work that out in a plan and make sure you execute it. But also have some flexibility because like I said throughout this, we've hit some roadblocks here and there and had to pivot. It's all good now, but at the time it seemed like it was life altering.

Jason Price: 
Sure. Angela, I have to ask, what did you do with all those iPads? And of course, I can give you my home address if you want to lend me one.

Angela Marra: 
Yeah, I have about 125 of them. So we have 200 kits, like I said, and so within each kit is about eight pieces of equipment. So I had ordered 200 iPads. So we've repurposed them throughout the company, but I still have probably about 100 left in a cabinet. We've had some donations within our industry when they've had an auction and stuff like that. But half have been repurposed within the company and half is still sitting there. So yeah, it's not a great investment. We got them not for too much money though, thankfully, but still a cost we could have avoided.

Jason Price: 
Sure. You mentioned the workforce and human capital management in the utilities is such an ongoing challenge that we could have a whole discussion just about that. But talk to us about how prepared was TECO Peoples Gas in terms of manpower and up-skilling its employees to utilize this new GPS barcode solution?

Angela Marra: 
So in some aspects, I think we were well prepared in the method where we knew we had the key players internally from our operation side, from our distribution side, from engineer side, we knew the key people and they're really smart people, who we wanted involved in the project to help formulate and develop that standard process that I said that we wanted to reach from the 14 different ways. Where it became a difficult undertaking was you had mentioned up-skilling the employees, it was actually up-skilling the contractors. So I'm sure, as you can imagine, we had some pushback from our contract crews and some that didn't want to take responsibility for equipment, some that didn't want to learn a new way to do it. So there was a lot of redirecting and they're already responsible for doing as builts and GPS collection. They're just going to be doing it a different way.

Angela Marra: 
So we have all sorts of contractors. You have some who've been in the industry for years and years and years ready to retire, not really look into change their way of doing things. And we have really young people who are very technologically savvy and embrace change and want to learn new ways of using technology. So the up-skilling for the contractors was the biggest part. But again, it helped for us to have internally the right key stakeholders involved in the project so they could help guide how this process would work so we could have one way of doing things, but also bringing the contractors around to saying, I know this might be a painful process, definitely in the beginning, but look, it's going to save you this much time.

Angela Marra: 
The number one complaint we got when we walked around going to the different divisions and talking to the contractors, what's the worst thing about doing this as built by paper? And they all said that it was the amount of time that it took for them to have to draw out what they did. Many times they would do their work that day, then they'd have to go home and spend a couple hours just drawing up maps. So, that took away from their family time or personal time. So we tried to look at that and say, well, using this new software that we have, what you're doing by hand is going to be digitally created and you're going to be able to see it. So we would have them do the drawing and we'd show them what it looked like electronically, and they would see, oh wow, yeah, this is the same or better and it didn't take me that long at all.

Angela Marra: 
So just had to really emphasize the perks of it, of what they were going to learn. But it wasn't a big investment. And it's still to this day, they have a high turnover, some contract or company. So it's not a one and done process, we're always training and retraining.

Jason Price: 
Absolutely. And in the lead up to bringing you on today, it was about the popularity of this methodology and how others are adopting it. So I want to talk to you about that because the Energy Central audience is from not only around the country and North America, but around the globe. So were there any particular advantages that you had in this project implementation by being in Florida? Will different geographies or regulatory environments need to recreate the solutions anew if they want to replicate your results? Or what would you share with our listening audience about going down this path that you took?

Angela Marra: 
Right. In Florida, we have a couple advantages. So when we started, there were just very few companies that I know had done this, and we took the time to go visit a company in Utah. Now, Utah landscape looks very much different than the Florida landscape. They have mountains, they have winter with snow and ice. So their system that they developed is very different than Florida. Florida's flat, it's not very deep for the soil that you're digging down into. It's a different type of soil. And we have sun quite a bit, but that's also heat. So, our sister company, New Mexico Gas, they have some of the same challenges with the heat. And other companies, like in Las Vegas area, they have those challenges but they also have where they get really quite cool at night in some areas of New Mexico, they even get some snow. But in Florida, we don't get snow, we don't get ice. It's pretty flat. So those are some of the things geographically different.

Angela Marra: 
One of the biggest pluses for us is in the State of Florida we have our own reference network, so like a satellite service, and it's free. So some states have to pay for that and we don't have to pay for that. Some companies have to purchase and set up base stations to be able to get accuracy from satellites when they're GPSing. And we're really fortunate that we don't have to do that.

Jason Price: 
Interesting. All right. So what comes next with this technology? Is it complete or is there a phase two to the technology?

Angela Marra: 
Oh, no. So we're taking what we have now and we're going to try to parlay it. So now just picture we've captured where all of our facilities are, just say, okay, so down the road if there's a leak or God forbid something else happens, we can use that technology and kind of reverse it. So I like to refer to it as reverse GPSing. So now our locator can go out and say, oh, I see that this pipe is captured at this latitude, this longitude, and I know that there's a valve here, et cetera, et cetera. So we're working towards being able to have, now that we've collected that information, how do we use it to go find it in the future?

Angela Marra: 
Also, under consideration is we do have some transmission line, not a ton but we do have some. Right now we work with surveyors to capture that information, but there's a possibility of leveraging it to use it for transmission. But one of the biggest things right now is our company does not have a work asset program or work management program. So we are in the process right now of implementing one and our GPS barcoding program is a key part of that. So they are combining with us and our software to manage how they do the work. So, work will be issued and then if they're going into the field to do collection, it then will bounce them to our program where they'll collect it. And then after it gets fed back into the system, it goes back. So from the point of an engineer creating a job all the way through the billing of the customer at the end, it's all going to be through our work management system. And our GPS barcoding program is a key part of that.

Jason Price: 
Well, fantastic. Certainly the results are there, and given that people who want adopt it and model your methodology, it speaks highly to the contributions you're making at TECO Peoples Gas.

Jason Price: 
So Angela, we're going to give you the last word, but before we do, we have something called the lightning round, and this is where we get a chance to meet you, the person as opposed to you, the professional. So, we're going to ask a series of questions. Your response should be limited to either one word or phrase. Are you ready?

Angela Marra: 
Sure.

Jason Price: 
All right. What are you doing on your ideal Saturday?

Angela Marra: 
Boating.

Jason Price: 
Movie, TV show or book you could revisit countless times without ever getting tired of it?

Angela Marra: 
Friends and King of Queens.

Jason Price: 
When do you get the most productive work done?

Angela Marra: 
Either in the morning or basically when I'm alone.

Jason Price: 
Angela, we know you're a huge New England Patriots fan, and you support Tom Brady down in Florida as well. So putting you in the hot seat, who will have a better year? The New England Patriots or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

Angela Marra: 
Oh my God, it pains me to say this, but it's going to be the bucks.

Jason Price: 
And what are you most motivated by?

Angela Marra: 
I like to succeed and I just want to make a difference and have other people's lives be a little bit easier. So, that's kind of what drives me.

Jason Price: 
Very nice. Well done navigating the lightning round. And as a tradition, that means you get to leave our audience with the final word. So what's the one message you hope comes through and sticks for our listeners of today's episode?

Angela Marra: 
Well, we are certainly in an exciting time of technology, I have to say, But also we are up against some political strife regarding our industry. So I just hope that folks can see the benefits of natural gas and the opportunities we have within us as an industry to become safer, more efficient when it comes to overseeing our systems. I want people to know that I am happy, personally to share my experiences that I've had and witnessed throughout this whole process, just like I had to learn from some other companies. And people are free to email me or give me a call because I just truly feel it just benefits us all if we all join together and strive to improve our industry.

Jason Price: 
Well, Angela, we appreciate that. And this has certainly been an illuminating discussion, and I can't wait to see the questions and comments that will come in from our community at Energy Central. So until then, we just want to thank you for sharing your insights with us on today's episode of the podcast.

Angela Marra: 
Yes, thank you again. I'm so excited, like I said, for this amazing opportunity. And I too, can't wait to hear what people have to say.

Jason Price: 
For sure. And you can always reach Angela through the Energy Central platform where she welcomes your questions and comments. We also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsors that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics, and cybersecurity.

Jason Price: 
Once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at EnergyCentral.com. And we'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

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