Implementing a GIS in an electrical utility: The growth pains

Implementing a GIS in an electrical utility: The growth pains

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Shubhabrata Marmar
ESRI India
This paper takes a look at an implementation of GIS in a power company in Beirut, Lebanon. The paper discusses the difficult process of generating a database for the GIS and the fact that most of us hesitate to approach and confront this problem. The case study is chosen because the situation and circumstances under which the GIS was created are very similar to those here in India.

The Business of Energy
Let us look at the average day in an electric utility. There are engineers in the operations unit who are using a number of systems to monitor the current network load and demand as well as the current status of the generation units.

In the Fault Repair and Customer Service room, Engineers and service technicians along with telephone operators and maybe a dispatcher, record and process calls for help from across the city. Each call is located on a map. The dispatcher or an engineer may try to figure out if there is a pattern to the calls and see if any facilities are automatically being pointed out as the source of the problem by the calls. For instance, if all the calls originate on a single street, then any facility, say the wire, which connects them all or the common component in the next higher hierarchy will in all probability be the source.

The identification of the source automatically leads to which kind of service crew is required to solve the problem and whether such a crew is available, if yes send them in or else wait for the first such crew to become available.

The planning section has engineers who are finishing up the new plan for a new layout on the edge of the town and all that is left is to figure out whether the current main network can support the extension with or without modification.

This operation appears to be huge but the picture is distorted. To put things in perspective, consider the supply network. The supply network is a maze of wires, transformers and other components that spread out like tentacles from the generating station and connect to households and factories across the town (or the country, for that matter) via substations to regulate and alter voltage as required.

The Electricity provider has to ensure that the entire network is operational at all times, regulate connections, monitor their consumption for operations as well as billing purposes. Fortunately in India, Electricity has so far been an exclusively Government exercise, otherwise, if it were privatised and customers were given the choice of provider as in the US, the company also gets to monitor who un-subscribes from their services. The mammoth task is made much easier when every component of the maze (every line, pole, meter) is available and track-able in a digital database. It allows a user to attach information to each object in a table and refer to this table whenever required. It becomes even easier, if this digital database is a spatial digital database, or a Geographic Information System.

The introduction of a GIS allows the maze to be represented as it really is, to show where lines have been put up, which lines connect which customers as well as background information like plots, houses etc.

The Evolution of Enterprise GIS in Electric Utilities
In the early days, GIS used to be a project activity. One department in the utility would start by implementing a GIS and spend a lot of time and energy creating first of all a database. This would typically take up about 70 percent of the time and money. The database could then be used for a number of functions and suddenly, a lot of the jobs in that department would become much easier and faster to carry out. The other departments would then learn of the breakthrough and they would begin to implement their own systems which would be implemented with some dependence on the other departments’ pre-created database and soon, most, even all departments would have their systems which would finally be connected so that information could be shared right across the organization. Suddenly, it would become possible for an engineer to create a plan and get an opinion from the operations or billing manager and see if they would face any problems in implementing a design. A finance person could track all new network components that were purchased and bring them up to show the auditor.