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Smart steps to out-smart challenges

With the ever-increasing demand for energy, water and communication services across the world, more and more utilities are investing in geospatial technology to optimise services and make processes more efficient

In mid-2012, India, the seventh largest country and second fastest growing economy in the world, was crippled by a massive electricity outage, leaving 670 million people across half the country without power for several hours. The worst electrical blackout in the history of the planet was accompanied by chaotic scenes of motionless trains on the track, huge traffic jams on roads, paralysed subway lines, hospitals running on backup generators and helpless miners trapped beneath the ground. Besides, it also had huge impact on the world’s 10th largest economy as businesses came to a standstill in many parts of the country. The incident was a grim reminder of our massive dependence on utilities and underlined the need for smarter services to prevent such incidents in future.

The tremendous significance of water for human sustenance and health is a well established fact. On the other hand, affordable and reliable power is considered the lifeline of an economy. Besides, rapid urbanisation has caused utilities such as gas and telecommunication to become a prerequisite for a large portion of the population. However, there are huge gaps in the demand and supply of these essential services, especially in the developing countries.

According to a UN report, over 1.2 billion people across the world lack access to clean water, while a report by the International Energy Agency puts the number of people without access to electricity at over 1.6 billion. Bridging this massive deficit will require the creation of new utility networks and increase in efficiency of the existing infrastructure. At the same time, all this has to be done in a sustainable way given that the shadow of global warming is getting bigger with each passing day.

With the ever-increasing challenge to produce more from less, and maximum benefit with minimum wastage, service providers around the globe are turning towards modern technologies to optimise services and make processes more efficient. Geospatial data and technology plays a critical role in the utilities industry.

Apart from being an integral component for the engineering and operations departments, the technology has become extremely vital for a number of other processes, up to the extent that it can literally transform a utility. An Esri study of electric utility professionals in 2012 found that almost 50% of the respondents reported a more than 10% increase in productivity in terms of return on investment due to the use of GIS (geographic information system) technology.

Utilities and geospatial technology
Geospatial technology has wide applications in all utility verticals, including electricity, water supply, gas and telecommunications. For an electricity company, the cost of maintaining its most important assets – transmission and distribution facilities – represents a huge chunk of its annual operating budgets. Geospatial technology simplifies records management for these key assets of a utility company, thus leading to a decrease in operational costs. Gas distribution companies deploy the technology for physical pipeline management and keeping track of every tiny detail such as stations and pipe pressures, valves and pipe diameter, emergency response, sales, outage management, planning and research etc.

On the telecommunications front, geospatial technology offers various advantages such as analysing service areas, geocoding antennas and clients, studying the relationship among signal coverage and customer service etc. For water supply companies, the technology can detail the location of its underground pipelines, reservoirs, watersheds etc.

“We use geospatial technology for editing, viewing and modification of all our networks, including the electricity, water, gas and fibre optic network,” says Eng. Atif Ahmed Karrani, Managing Director, General Directorate of IT, Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority. “Besides, during an emergency, the response time is of utmost importance and geospatial technology helps the field engineers in getting access to specific information in a timely manner.”

G-tech for electricity
Good data holds tremendous value for electricity companies. Linking the customer and asset data to a geographic location on a map allows the service providers to look at the bigger picture and thus makes for a powerful decision- making tool. Geospatial technology offers a well-organised platform for planning and analysis, mobile workforce management, data management and better customer service. Besides, the ability of GIS to integrate with other software like ERP or SCADA in an organisation makes it an easy to use tool for every utility organisation.

GIS plays a significant role in power generation, transmission and distribution. To overcome the commonly seen challenges in the distribution sector, such as a complex network, huge geographical coverage as well as other operational and maintenance challenges, a number of electricity distribution companies are switching to geospatial technology-based distribution management to improve their effi- ciency and manage their networks effectively. Some of the key issues facing electricity boards and distribution companies include mounting distribution losses and ever-increasing demand, leading to frequent load-shedding and tripping. GIS is an effective tool that can bind together the various pieces of an electricity distribution system and thus ensure better asset management, improved customer service, improved outage management and more accurate data.

“With proper GIS in place, one can do energy auditing as well as identify and filter the theft-prone areas. Besides, it can also be used to do load flow analysis with the help of a load-flow analysis software plugged with the GIS,” says Dipak Kumar Banerjee, head of GIS cell at Kolkata-based power distribution company CESC. The DMS system from SCADA gives the information on which transformer is off in case of a tripping, he says. Another major advantage is asset management, which can give a reality check of things at ground level. “If your GIS is well maintained and updated, all such information can be kept at fingertips.”

Authorities across the world are touting smart grid as the answer to all our electricity supply woes. Simply put, a smart grid is a computerised electric utility grid, which entails adding two-way digital communication technology to various devices in a grid. Each individual device in the grid is fitted with sensors to gather various types of data such as power consumption, voltage, fault detection etc. Another feature is the two way communication that takes place between the field device and the utility’s operations centre. Effective implementation of the smart grid technology entails the foundation of an enterprise GIS that can help in data management, mobile workforce management, planning and analysis etc.

Integration of GIS with other available software can also enhance the ef- ficiency of the distribution system. Integration with SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and SAP (System Application & Products) can provide real-time data from these systems on a geographical view of the electrical network, thus adding value to the entire system. Both SCADA and GIS are key operational tools in electricity distribution, and integration between the two results in increased efficiency.

For Delhi-based BSES Yamuna Power, successful software integration has resulted in improved operational efficiency. “To know our network and assets, we plotted our complete electrical network on GIS,” says Vice-President Harsh Sharma. “Subsequently, we integrated the GIS with other software like SCADA and SAP and thus made GIS the dashboard for entry into all our operations including asset management, maintenance and addition of new consumers. Besides, we also have an outage management system that is integrated with GIS and SCADA,” he adds.

Agrees Arup Ghosh, Chief Technology officer, North Delhi Power Limited (NDPL). “All our assets, including the distribution and transmission networks, are on GIS. Further, the GIS is integrated with our ERP and SCADA, which means that the entire asset management cycle, from planning for and implementing the assets at site to maintaining and finally retiring the assets, is supported by our GIS.”

G-tech for water
Over the years, the use of geospatial technology by utility companies has moved much beyond engineering and has encompassed several other activities. “While most water utility organisations still use the technology solely for engineering purposes, it has much broader use, such as by the finance group for water consumption forecasting, by the water lab for managing water quality and exploring better ways to communicate with your customers,” explains Susan Ancel, Director Water Distribution and Transmission, EPCOR Water Services.

Water and wastewater distribution, like most other utilities, is an asset-driven business, where most of these assets are represented by complex and expensive pipelines and distribution systems. A majority of the organisation’s workforce is involved in the planning, design, construction and maintenance of these assets. Water and wastewater management companies across the world rely on accurate databases and spatial information to manage their operations, which includes everything from fresh water supply to identifying pipeline network and sewers. A spatially enabled supply network is critical throughout the supply chain – be it the management of an existing project, planning of a new network or identifying a leak or any other kind of disruption. Accurate mapping of the assets also ensures their proper maintenance besides providing an integrated view of the existing network in relation to the customers’ location.

“Geospatial technology is an extremely effective tool for the water/waste water management companies,” says Nader Bin Taher, Strategic Planning and Communication Department Manager, Asset Performance Department Manager, Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company (ADSSC). He says his company extensively uses GIS for capturing, monitoring and maintaining the asset register.

While GIS offers a platform for accessing various types of business data, integrating work orders, updating network information and finding customer information, a GIS driven analysis can also help identify future demand trends and thus help the utility provider in planning ahead of time. “A sewerage project can last for 2-3 years, during which time a lot of changes take place. Geospatial technology helps keep track of these changes and thus ensures error-free functioning,” explains Nader Bin Taher.

G-tech for gas
Compared to some of the other utilities, natural gas distribution is a more complex and riskier proposition as even a slight error in terms of a leakage can result in a major catastrophe. Large gas distribution networks consist of numerous pipelines containing thousands of interconnected pieces that are spread across a huge geographical area.

Gas utilities around the world have started using geospatial technology for mapping, maintaining and reporting on their infrastructure.

Besides, the mobile capabilities of GIS allow field employees to move data freely between the site and office, and help keep the information up to date. GIS-based planning and analysis allow gas distribution companies to plan better, ensure safety, understand customer needs and requirements, assess construction and maintenance activities and ensure regulatory compliance. Besides, GIS also facilitates the linkage between asset data and other key information, thus providing situational awareness to keep track of work orders and monitor emergency shutdowns.

“For a gas distribution company, geospatial technology offers several benefits like integrating information from disparate systems and representing that in a spatial context or equipping field personnel with critical information wherever required,” says Phil Mannell, Director, Customer Connections and Construction, Enbridge Gas Distribution, Canada’s largest gas distribution utility. The technology also helps companies find sales leads in relation to existing and planned networks, and anticipate and mitigate issues by reviewing pressure variations of upstream and downstream assets in distribution system, he adds.

Some of the unique challenges faced the natural gas distribution companies are meeting the ever increasing demand, placing new infrastructure in line with environmental issues, increasing the efficiency of existing network while meeting consumer expectations, rising costs of raw material, carrying out safe operations while strictly abiding by regulations, operating critical infrastructure and having to be always ready to deal with emergencies. Geospatial technology can help meet all these challenges and ensure safety, service reliability and cost efficient operations.

“It is critical to have a high-tech system in the gas network organisation, which makes it easier to collect information of all the equipment and thus offer better quality services for people and also to improve safety. All this can be conveniently achieved with the help of geospatial technology,” says Ahmet Fatih Hames, Infrastructure Information Systems Manager at the Istanbul-based IGDAS.

Top application areas of geospatial technology
Electricity Trouble call/outage analysis, data maintenance, engineering work order design, engineering analysis, asset management, work management, workforce automation, mobile mapping, CIS integration, conversion/data capture
Water/Waste water GIS database maintenance, core GIS migration, data management, data conversion, field computing and collection, system integration, asset management, work management, engineering design, replacement forecast planning
Gas Regulatory compliance, process automation, network analysis/simulation, routing/location-based applications, CIS integration with AM/FM/GIS, replacement maintenance monitoring/management, construction design, leak detection/ management, mobile data collection/viewing/access, facility maintenance – monitoring and management
Telecommunications Engineering design tie with data conversion, work management, system integration, GIS database management tie with asset management, field computing and collection, facility maintenance tie with data management, core GIS migration, facilities modelling, investigation/litigation support

G-tech for telecom
Telecom is an extremely dynamic industry where the service providers are required to innovate and evolve constantly in order to fulfil the ever increasing demands of the consumer. Access to reliable spatial information is the cornerstone for informed decision-making in such a highly competitive market. Network management is a crucial aspect of telecommunications operations where providing error-free services can ensure customer retention. No wonder then telecom companies across the world are switching to geospatial technology in order to ensure optimum network management.

Major benefits of using geospatial technology in utilities

Reliable spatial data can be used for network requirement assessment and to carry out a detailed analysis before setting up new networks and infrastructure. For example, network assessment can be made to check if it is possible to provide certain services in an area or not. The technology can thus enable the service provider to take a leap ahead of the competition and capture a fare share of the market. Spatial technology is extremely vital for telecom companies that are looking to minimise operational costs, improve business processes, offer enhanced services, plan ahead of time and react promptly to any emergency situation.

GIS technology has helped Etisalat in automating the business process and speed up the planning process by providing information to decision makers to help them take effective decisions for network development based on customer information, says Ibrahim Seif, Senior Manager/Inventory-T&I/Information at Dubai-based telecom major Etisalat. “While planning a project, GIS gives you the bigger picture so you would be able to see the existing network and thus avoid duplication,” he says, adding the company’s customer service department is using GIS to locate the customers and provide better care.

Benefits of geospatial technology
Network planning and management: Constructing an electricity transmission line is one of the toughest engineering challenges and involves more complexity than routing any other public infrastructure. Effective network planning can go a long way in achieve optimum utilisation of the available resources while providing enhanced services to the customers. With its ability to perform an analysis of the available assets, target customers and the web of existing network, geospatial technology can simplify the process of new network planning. Besides, the network can also be made available for the public, which leads to transparency.

Highlighting the technology’s tremendous efficacy in network planning, Harsh Sharma of BSES says, “Geospatial technology helps us in network planning, such as where to add a transformer or where to build a new network. It has been used to an extent that our whole network has now been made public. We publish it on our portal, which not only helps improve the efficiency but also brings transparency.”

Eng. Karrani is also upbeat about the numerous benefits of deploying the technology in utility organisations. “SEWA’s prime objective is to deliver quality services to its citizens and GIS helps to ensure that the services are delivered in an uninterrupted and timely manner. The projects department uses geospatial technology in all its phases, from planning the project to development and execution phase. Besides, it has also helped in improving customer service.”

Outage management: One of the prime challenges for any utility company is to ensure earliest restoration of services, following a natural disaster or any other type of outage. Prompt response to an outage is perhaps the most essential aspect for electricity distribution companies, where a prolonged outage can result in huge losses, not only for the distributor but also for the consumers. Electricity distribution companies across the world have started to deploy GIS-based outage management systems in order to ensure quick response to a crisis. A GIS-powered outage management system assimilates various types of data from the electric network, customer information, work orders and SCADA systems. The up-to-date records stored in a GIS system and its ability to present the complete utility data on top of geographic information helps the emergency teams to act accurately and thus meet customer requirements.

Florida-based Progress Energy has significantly improved its outage management process – the time it spends on dispatching field crews, travel, and location – with the implementation of geospatial technology.

“For a utility organisation, more data means more business enhancement. With the help of geospatial technology, emergency response or internal problems can be solved without going to the substation,” says Eng. Karrani.

Mobile workforce management: Studies conducted over the years have concluded that more than 60% of the total employees in a typical utility company are field based. Thus, management and automation of a utility company’s mobile workforce becomes extremely critical for cost reduction and improvement in productivity. GIS-based workforce management systems allow a utility company to better organise the schedule and dispatch of its field personnel. Geospatial technology helps locate employees on the field and also gives information about the status of their work. Besides, the location of service vans can be traced through an automated vehicle location system while a routing system can enable the handling of more service calls, thus resulting in reduced fleet costs.

Customer service: A utility company serves the common man and ensuring prompt customer service is the key to growth in such a scenario. Geospatial technology offers innovative solutions to most fundamental issues faced by the utility companies. For example, mapping customer satisfaction levels enables the service providers to find out the location of their most dissatis- fied customers. This data, when combined with other data such as historic records of outages, can pinpoint the exact cause of consumer dissatisfaction. The findings can help the utility companies to devise solutions such as targeted consumer educational programmes, instead of simply relying on the trial and error method.

Infrastructure management: Setting up the utility infrastructure such as installing fibre, copper and wireless networks has become very costly off late. For telecom companies, especially, the rapidly growing competition has forced them to look for opportunities to cut costs and make maximum use of their existing networks. Utility companies across the world are using geospatial technology to map the location of their assets, both overhead and underground. Moreover, a GIS system can also link the asset information with the customer information, thus allowing the agency to better monitor work orders, outages etc.

Although geospatial technology has been implemented by a large number of utility companies across the globe, there are a number of challenges that hinder the further growth and usage of this technology.

Explaining how the lack of awareness about the benefits of geospatial technology has hampered the usage and growth of this technology in Enbridge Gas Distribution, Mannell says, “The challenge with expanding GIS is the fact that GIS was always looked as a mapping system; it is difficult to make others understand that it is more than a map and can be used for things like analytics to highlight business benefits and risks.” While the early use of GIS at EGD was restricted to limited users, with the introduction of an updated GIS infrastructure, the company now plans to expand it to other groups too.

Nader Taher cites the lack of integration between different software as the one of the biggest hurdles. “A major challenge within the organisation is the expansion of GIS. Different departments are using different software to make use of our data. Thus, our challenge here is to take all this data and put it together so that it communicates effectively and meets the requirements of different departments,” he says.

Mapping the assets and keeping the asset register up to date is another hurdle that needs urgent attention. “Mapping the assets was a major challenge. Our first challenge was to get suitable land based maps and to turn them into vector maps. Another challenge was to fully map all the assets, which required us to find those assets, correlate those with paper records and then mapping that effectively in GIS,” says NDPL’s Ghosh. The next challenge for the company is to keep the asset register updated. “People tend to replace assets on site or take those out for repairs. Keeping track of all of that on a real time basis is a big challenge,” he adds.

User training and capacity building is another challenge, according to BSES’s Sharma. “The users were initially reluctant in adopting GIS technology. Another major challenge is the availability of trained manpower.”

The use of geospatial technology by various public utilities has grown significantly over the past few years. Service providers these days are not only expected to respond to their customers’ needs but are also obligated to fulfil their social responsibility. For instance, while the customers are looking for reliability and affordability, the regulators demand minimal impact on the environment.

Utility providers, both in the government as well as private sectors worldwide have realised its benefits and have made huge investments towards this. The need of the hour is to spread awareness about the tremendous benefits in terms of increased safety and efficiency that the technology can bring to utility organisations.

“The utility sector is making extensive use of geospatial technology to know where they need to put new supply infrastructure, and to ascertain demand for their produce, so that we know exactly where we are and where do we need to increase capacity,” says Astrid Vokso, GIS coordinator, Norwegian Water Resource and Energy Department. “In all parts of the society where spatial is a relevant factor, the technology can be used, is being used and should be used.”