GIS Brings SCE&G to the Technological Forefront
By Jesse Theodore, ESRI
Utilities these days have some tough facts to face. Deregulation, already beginning to take shape in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and a few other states, is an idea soon to become a reality across the country. And it will change everything we know about today`s $210 billion retail electric utility market.
The computerized solutions utilities employ are no exception. Preparing for the fateful day of deregulation, utilities are seeking out innovative technologies for fending off competitors and maintaining existing consumer bases, while gaining new customers wherever possible.
This is especially true at South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), which maintains 475,000 electric customers in a 16,000 square miles service area.
The utility has completed the rapid implementation of a powerful, full-scale GIS that provides integrated problem solving, greater operational and engineering efficiencies, improved decision making, and tremendous cost savings. This means that no matter when the big day hits in South Carolina, SCE&G will be ready.
SCE&G initially investigated GIS technology in the 1980s, but rejected the idea at the time because it was too costly–some projections reached upwards of $25 million. Before a dollar was spent, a cost justification had to be soundly in place and a return on investment not too far away from the date of implementation.
In 1991 a second proposal was made that represented only a fraction of a similar proposal made in the 1980s. “We drastically cut costs in the second proposal to gain upper management support,” said Chuck Rogers, SCE&G`s GIS manager. “Still, we had real and very specific benefits that could generate a payback in a very short period of time.”
The proposal was approved. Based on the evaluation, SCE&G selected ARC/INFO software from ESRI, Redlands, California, as their GIS solution. ARC/INFO is a professional level GIS used for data automation and integration, spatial analysis, and cartographic production.
According to SCE&G, the decision was made to go with ESRI because of several key reasons.
First, ARC/INFO is hardware and software independent, giving SCE&G an open data management solution and open platform support. Second, ESRI`s implementation included partnerships with Tellus/Connext, Seattle, Washington, as well as Miner and Miner, Greeley, Colorado. These companies provide products that integrate seamlessly with ARC/INFO and are specifically developed for the electric utility industry.
ESRI`s ARC/INFO is also used by more state and local government agencies and private businesses, including both public and private utilities, than any other GIS software package in South Carolina. This large user community gives SCE&G a wealth of data exchange opportunities.
The GIS Team
After approval from upper management, the SCE&G GIS Implementation Team was formed. The team included personnel who worked on the GIS proposal combined with personnel from drafting and mapping departments. The project was budgeted at $8 million. A hefty sum, the cost was justified in several ways. First, GIS applications could reduce the underground construction costs, which run annually in the $5 million to $10 million range.
“By having an application run several scenarios, the designer can usually find a less expensive way of doing the work and generate a capital construction cost savings,” Rogers explained.
The second cost justification was that the utility would save money by eliminating redundant or unnecessary tasks. One of the areas that had the most wasted effort was in keeping as many as four different map sets up to date every time a change was made in the field.
Another area of savings is in work order design. According to Rogers, the utility can reduce the effort required to produce work order drawings, and then take the “as built” data into GIS automatically and eliminate the time and effort required to move “as built” data into the GIS database.
SCE&G was able to get up and running with its GIS in record time. One of the ways the organization accomplished this was to begin full throttle, which meant no pilot project. “Simply put, we were afraid of a pilot,” Rogers joked.
According to Rogers, the biggest reason to avoid conducting a pilot was to avoid getting bogged down focusing on one portion of the project area rather than attacking the entire service area at once.
When he visited other sites in 1991 to select a GIS vendor, Rogers discovered several large projects that had been in pilot for years. He did not want that to happen at SCE&G, but concedes some prep work was done before implementation.
“I think it could be argued that, while we never actually called it a pilot, we were indeed piloting our applications and database designs,” Rogers said.
SCE&G was also able to convert thousands of paper maps to digital format in just 14 months. Similar implementation activities at other utilities usually take years. SCE&G attributes a large part of this success to working with the consulting firm Cartotech out of San Antonio, Texas, for data conversion.
As good as the implementation was, it still wasn`t all smooth sailing. The organization spent tremendous time, energy, and money making sure data were extremely accurate.
“We underestimated the cost and effort of data cleanup,” Rogers said. “While Cartotech was able to deliver our data well within our contractual error rates, we vastly underestimated the task of final cleanup. A 1 percent error in your data does not generate a 1 percent conversion effort. In actuality, the cleanup effort is many, many times that.”
SCE&G currently uses four GIS-based applications. Tellus/Connext provides its Automated Electric Plat Design (AEPD). An engineering tool for designing underground electric facilities for subdivisions, AEPD has been in production for eighteen months with users across the State.
Miner and Miner supplied the remaining three applications. The first, MAP, produces standard maps; the second, VIEW, is a GIS navigator that allows users to view, navigate and query data online. VIEW also allows users to generate specialty maps of any area, at any scale, with any facilities in the database. Users can employ VIEW to produce reports based on data across any geographic boundary mapped by the GIS.
Miner and Miner`s DistOps allows users to perform engineering analysis on all the circuits including voltage drop, fault current, switching, coordination and more.
“It is really exciting to see so many engineers using network models for planning and analysis,” said Jeff Meyers, Miner and Miner`s president. “DistOps really eliminates the burden of building detailed distribution models, and lets engineers and operators spend their time in improving system performance, rather than manipulating data.”
The Right Tool for the Right Job
One of the most valuable benefits of GIS is the ability to generate and then disseminate maps in a computerized environment in less time and for less money.
Maps at varying scales and representing different data sets such as distribution lines, transformers or utility poles are generated using ARC/INFO GIS. These maps are then made available online in a client/server environment to each of SCE&G`s 150 desktop users using ArcStorm as the spatial data manager.
Users can then make queries of the data. While this may sound easy enough, this spatial data access capability was not available before GIS.
Whether it`s for calculating tree trimming needs within a service area, designing underground subdivisions, performing switching scenarios or allowing dispatchers to view maps for deploying resources, the GIS-driven applications are helping SCE&G do its job better.
According to ESRI, some of the SCE&G applications demonstrate the full potential of GIS. “SCE&G is proving that you don`t have to take a long time before harnessing the capabilities of GIS,” said Linda Hecht, ESRI`s marketing director. “The applications SCE&G is using, including mapping and inventory analysis, maintenance tracking, regulatory compliance and more, are helping utility professionals do their jobs easier, better and faster. This will help SCE&G in its evolution to a new, competitive business model.”
Preparing for the Future
Future applications will integrate GIS applications with other existing and new applications such as outage management, facilities management and work management.
According to Rogers, the advantages of GIS will keep SCE&G ahead in the utility market for a long time in the future, no matter when deregulation takes affect. “GIS will allow us to assess our facilities quickly as threats and opportunities occur,” Rogers said. “GIS will allow us to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with our public utilities commission.”
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This is a sample output screen from the prototype SCADA interface showing the load in amps on all circuits out of two substations in the Columbia area.
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This screen shows all of SCE&G`s primary electrical conductors in the Columbia metro district. They represent approximately 100,000 individual arcs.
Jesse Theodore is a writer at ESRI, a GIS software and consulting firm based in Redlands, Calif. He writes about GIS-related topics for a variety of national and international publications.