Keeping Up with the Big Guys: How Geospatial Technology Can Transform Small Utilities

Tony DiMarco | Jul 01, 2008

They don’t have nearly as many customers and employees, and they have fewer meters and substations. However, smaller utilities have the same basic application needs as their larger neighbors.

Just as a large electric utility company depends on geospatial information systems (GIS) to serve millions of customers, a smaller utility can use GIS to support its electrical distribution infrastructure. A smaller utility or electric cooperative can also benefit from applications such as an outage management system (OMS), mobile workforce management, and design, asset and engineering management.

GIS provides the database and technology to help an electric utility design new service connections and maintain an accurate and up-to-date record of the company’s facilities, generating maps for use in the office and taking asset information into the field. Asset management and a computer model of the electrical distribution system is also the backbone of a utility outage management system, enabling a utility to better manage its service delivery to its customers and improve responsiveness to interruptions.

Because of the unique physical characteristics of a utility, with wire and equipment assets that are geographically dispersed and a large field force to construct, operate and maintain, GIS technology and integration with real time systems are quickly becoming integral requirements for the design and asset management of any utility infrastructure.

There are approximately 3,100 electric utilities in the U.S. today. Most of the largest utilities have adopted some form of GIS technology in their daily operations. However, many small utilities are using only basic computer-aided drafting technology to automate aspects of their facility mapping. With GIS and spatial infrastructure management technology becoming more mature and easier to manage, the next wave of market expansion will focus on small and medium-size utilities.

If these smaller electric companies are going to optimize their GIS solution, they need to do more than just work with a computerized picture. The real value of a utility GIS is working with a true spatial database of the electrical infrastructure and distribution assets and leveraging the data across other key applications.

Packaged Solutions

Small utilities can accomplish more by implementing packaged systems based on proven technologies that have been developed over many years to meet the more stringent needs of the largest customers.

When considering how to implement a geospatial system, small and mid-size utilities have a distinct advantage compared to larger electric providers. It’s often easier for smaller utilities to implement new solutions because they are more willing to adapt their business processes to accommodate new systems. Instead of customizing a complex software system to conform to an existing process, they are willing to adopt a software solution based on proven practices within the industry. This is a classic change management issue – change the process or change the software.

In fact, small utilities have the added advantage of being able to technologically leapfrog their larger neighbors because they are more nimble and not so entrenched in their business processes.

Major database and packaged business application suppliers like Oracle and SAP recognized the mid-tier market and adapted their products to make them affordable to smaller businesses. Similarly, as GIS technology has become more stable and scalable, the sale of a complete suite of operational support systems for the smaller utility has become more common.

Another important aspect to IT purchasing is open standards. It has been estimated that more than half of the typical IT budget in organizations is consumed by integration costs, through either developing or maintaining interfaces. Standardizing interfaces between systems is one approach to minimizing high integration costs.

One example of this is the MultiSpeak standard developed by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). MultiSpeak allows electric cooperatives to purchase IT systems from a variety of suppliers using a “best of breed” philosophy. If all suppliers meet MultiSpeak standards, systems can be integrated without expensive interfaces.

Keeping Costs Low

Because of the complexity of the required solutions and IT support needed, only the largest utilities could traditionally afford to install completely integrated systems in the past. However, other utilities and cooperatives have the same basic needs and some forward-thinking small utilities have leveraged GIS and other technologies to transform their businesses.

Connexus Energy, one of the largest electric cooperatives in the country, more than 10 years ago sought geospatial technology that would enable the utility to more efficiently manage its engineering design, assets and infrastructure. The technology is used for map creation and engineering planning, and to supply high-quality, up-to-date digital maps to crews in the field for use during emergency, short-cycle and construction work. Today, the system is used by more than 50 employees on a regular basis, including engineers, system operators, customer service professionals and field crews.

In 2006, Connexus decided to upgrade its geospatial electric design and asset management technology to support a more integrated computing environment. The new design and asset management system allows Connexus to supply its engineers, operators and field crews with additional, higher-quality data and further leverage geospatial data across a variety of corporate applications, including its outage management system, as well as seamlessly exchange data with other organizations that may use other mapping and GIS systems.

With the goal of keeping conversion costs down, Connexus chose to undertake this upgrade largely on its own with a small, dedicated in-house staff. Through the use of an industry-standard transmission and distribution system model, Connexus was able to get this project off the ground very quickly.

“As a co-op, delivering reliable electric service to our customers in the most cost-effective way is our top priority,” said Paul Orndorff, engineering manager at Connexus Energy. “Our design and asset management system allows us to work smarter, faster and more efficiently, which translates into better, more cost-effective service for our customers. Additionally, being able to undertake the recent upgrade largely on our own helped us save several hundred thousand dollars, which allowed us to upgrade our technology, yet do it at a reasonable cost.”

“The ability to easily pull geospatial data from our asset management system into other critical applications like OMS significantly increases the value of our IT infrastructure and the effectiveness of our operators and crews,” added Dale Nikkola, business analyst with Connexus Energy. “We expect the value to increase over time as we set up additional applications and integrate with more external systems that leverage our geospatial data.”

Increasing Value

Additional applications and system integration increases the value of geospatial data for small utilities and cooperatives and provides a quicker return on investment. A standalone design and asset management system might pay for itself in a few years. However, expanding that solution to include an integrated work management system and integration with other corporate information systems reduces that payback time. If the design and asset management system is integrated with an outage management solution, the return on investment is even greater. Easy integration with the other systems, including outage management and field computing, drives value throughout the business and impacts the greatest number of employees. It improves productivity by providing better information.

Some of the best uses of GIS technology have been within smaller organizations that think big and act quickly to implement in planned phases. Small utilities should use their size and agility to their advantage when thinking about how GIS and other technologies can best be used to improve their business operations.

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