AM/FM/GIS puts assets on the map

Dana Bacciocco, Associate Editor

“If you still think of GIS as a niche project, you’re behind the times. If you have no plan-get it together-it’s a reality now.”

Roxanne Cox-Drake, from ESRI’s electric and gas utility marketing, compared modern GIS to an Internet strategy for utilities, where companies plan for the supporting infrastructure, then put applications and business solutions on top of it. “We don’t view GIS as a utility application, but as a spatially enabled infrastructure,” she said.

Convergent Group’s vice president of strategic development, Paul Yarka, agreed, “A GIS system is the heart of a distribution system. Unfortunately, many companies look at GIS from a ‘silo’ perspective, without recognizing all the benefits of a spatial database.” It’s more than a records management system, more than a glorified CAD system. It is a system that feeds all the work processes of a utility, giving information to all applications that drive the elements of a T&D business.

Utility executives who are not familiar with GIS may see it as another IT project that will provide great records and cool maps. However, the savings on paper and drafters’ time won’t pay the full dividends. What will justify the cost of GIS? Consider the applications derived from it: operations management, distribution and planning, maintenance management, business applications of T&D technologies, SCADA technology, connection to real-time events, connection to work crews, routing efficiency, service territory work prioritization-suddenly, the business case reveals GIS as a fundamental infrastructure for conducting asset management.

Many utilities have or are implementing GIS, but fewer have implemented the asset model that enables overall organizational digital transformation. “GIS versus an integrated asset management system is a huge differentiator in terms of the IT and business process prowess of utilities in North America,” Yarka said. “GIS is an infrastructure that enables technologies to fully integrate-it really separates the leaders from the rest of the pack.

“I can tell you that utilities we’ve worked with, who use this asset-based approach enabled by GIS to integrate these key work processes, realize an annual benefit of up to $20 million for a medium-sized utility. But only when you look at GIS integrated entirely into the many T&D asset-focused applications and you think about integrated work processes can you achieve that benefit. When it’s integrated and you use it from an asset modeling approach then it has a direct connection to the bottom line that’s very attractive.”

AM/FM/GIS has been around for over 20 years in a variety of flavors, according to Yarka. Utilities have used it to build pictorial models of electric and gas distribution and transmission systems and component facilities. Complexity exists in moving from a graphical representation to usable, useful, malleable, applicable data-data with spatial and attribute characteristics. Modern GIS creates models in utility applications, especially gas, water and wastewater, and T&D for electric utilities. There are technologies on the horizon and in use that can be applied to measure and feed back real-time information, integrating it into the model, which is the ultimate goal, said Yarka.

Most utilities are in the modeling mode. Then there are those who are thinking of the next step, where the future of real-time measurement and GIS location awareness connect. Less than a handful of companies are working toward the ultimate state; 10 percent to 15 percent of the industry is at the asset-model level, fully leveraging their GIS investment. Some classes of users are working with a lack of GIS or poorly implemented or unintegrated systems, or bad data. And while there is tremendous opportunity for the GIS vendor, there is significant consolidation in the AM/FM/GIS product marketplace. The number of vendors has declined rapidly because of the vigorous pace of advances in and demands for improved technology.

While the predominant use in the utility industry is in asset modeling, there are many GIS applications that can build upon it. Think of the worker in the field who never comes into the office but receives electronic assignments on a mobile data terminal and accesses GIS information off site. A utilities sales rep can use field-based tools to show customers how the utility system is feeding their demand. Employees don’t move out of their familiar framework, but data and information gain enhanced usability; tables, charts and spreadsheets are replaced by graphical representation. Cox-Drake added, “The growth area in GIS for utilities is the use of graphical tools and analysis to support market assessment.”

“The utility industry is disaggregating as a result of deregulation. There are now generation companies, transmission companies, distribution companies, retail companies, power exchanges and more. Every one of those contexts has an application for GIS. But the biggest to-date use for it is managing the assets of the regulated distribution/transmission company,” said Yarka.

A model solution

AM/FM/GIS in a utility should be the single authoritative repository for all system assets, according to Yarka. The system should be able to use one model to enable other applications. For example, an outage management system taking incoming customer trouble calls can draw from the asset model and spatially predict where trouble is and work through the network to dispatch, to a precise location, a field crew armed with a description of the problem and the tools to make repairs. The asset model allows management of the entire business process of troubleshooting and customer interaction. “An asset model enabled by AM/FM/GIS can run the full life cycle of asset management in all applications of the T&D utilities in America,” said Yarka.

Object-oriented modeling is taking GIS to new heights. Object models present component entities-all the elements that connect to bring gas and electricity to the customer. The wholeness of the object-oriented system provides scenarios of how components are connected, vis-àƒ¡-vis what the system is transmitting, i.e. how electricity or gas flows through the system versus the graphical connectivity. With the generation of object modeling and supporting technology comes the ability to more completely model systems and makes headway toward the goal of measurement.

What’s more, with the object-oriented system, information can be built upon and attribute data added. For example, through a process of inheritance and object modeling, technology can help a company manage and maintain equipment for different classes of transformers-beginning with one class and building on it. It can better support equipment choices and load management.

Advanced GIS not only allows for robust modeling and seamless integration within a utility, but aspires to elevate it as a corporate citizen of the community. ESRI has developed gnet architecture, a geography network in which entities who collect geographic information for maps can share data for free or fee via the Internet. The system enables users to obtain electronic information and overlay it with their GIS maps. Information includes, for example, weather or lightning data, topography, transmission lines, and more; local and national. “We don’t have all the data, but have put in place a framework in which people can make their data available and others can use,” said Cox-Drake.

ESRI’s Roxanne Cox-Drake, electric & gas utility marketing, can be contacted at

Paul Yarka is Convergent’s vice president of strategic development and can be contacted at

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