Geoff Zeiss, Autodesk
Experts predict a smart grid build out will be one of the largest wealth creators in the decade, and there are important reasons to replace the existing electric power grid, including a growing number of outages, aging infrastructure and coming renewable portfolio standards.
A smart grid is more complicated than our current grid, however. It involves price signals to consumers, distributed generation, automated load management, a new bidirectional communications network, storage, redundancy and a self-healing network that is smart enough to isolate problem equipment. It’s also smart enough to reconfigure itself to minimize the number of customers affected and to reduce the time to identify and repair the faulty equipment.
Utilities need new tools to improve productivity and to enable them to upgrade and build out the smart grid. As banks, low-cost airlines and the German automobile industry have shown, information technology can reduce costs dramatically while improving quality.
Utilities have struggled by with a relatively low quality of network infrastructure data, but managing and operating the new smart grid will involve higher volumes of data—some estimate 1,000 times as much data—and will require what one smart grid analyst has characterized as “100 percent accurate, real-time data.”
To prepare for the smart grid, utilities must address the data quality challenge. First, they must improve the reliability and timeliness of their information about their existing facilities. Second, they must change their business processes for records management so they are optimized to maintain ongoing, high quality for their facilities data.
Most utilities store information about existing facilities as records, which may be paper or electronic maps. Improving record reliability requires a field survey to update the records database, which then often must be reconciled with the asset management database. A field survey—which traditionally means that a utility employee must visit each piece of equipment and visually inspect it—is expensive, often prohibitively so, because it requires a trained electric power linesman or designer, both of whom are in short supply at most utilities. With the availability of new geospatial imagery-capture technologies such as high-resolution aerial photogrammetry, oblique imagery, mobile street imagery and laser-scanned imagery, it is possible to bring down dramatically the price to resurvey existing facilities. The resolution of the new generation of imagery means that much of what used to require field trips now can be done in the office.
Optimizing Business Processesfor Data Quality
The reason the data quality of power utility network facility databases the world over is low is because similar paper-based, labor-intensive business processes for records management is followed. For example, a major challenge utilities face is the as-built problem. (Editor’s note: An “as built” is a record drawing that shows the final configuration of a structure as built as opposed to imagined or originally conceived by the architect or engineer. It contains all major and minor changes made to an item or structure during construction.) A symptom of this problem, the as-built backlog, is comprised of as builts returned from construction that are waiting to be entered into the records database. As-built backlogs, which can stretch from several months to years, mean that the records database is always out-of-date, making it difficult to provide reliable information about network facilities to the field, management and regulators.
Another example is that field staff often are frustrated by unreliable records they receive with work orders. Business processes discourage field-workers from providing valuable information back to the records department about errors they observe in the field or changes they have made.
Another typical problem is data redundancy. Gartner has documented how in one utility, nine groups were maintaining similar information about power poles. When management requested information about the utility’s pole inventory, there was potential for nine conflicting reports.
These are examples of symptoms associated with technology islands and silos. Different groups use different technologies. Engineers and designers use CAD tools, and records clerks use geographic information system (GIS) tools. Because different tools have relied on different, proprietary data formats, the information flow among groups is typically paper. The result is a slow, laborious process that hinders producing and maintaining reliable, timely records.
Utilities have begun addressing these problems using various approaches, services and products, but the successful solutions have three common elements: workflow focus, a single point of truth and the ability to empower the field force.
- Work flow focus. Utilities look at how information flows through divisions, rather than looking solely at processes within divisions. The objective is optimizing the entire work flow, not just pieces within divisions. For example, by enabling designers and planners to store their design drawings in a shared, spatially enabled relational database, these drawings can be accessible directly by records clerks who no longer have to re-digitize the same information from paper as builts. The result: As-built backlogs are eliminated, the records database is up-to-date and maps provided to the field are more reliable.
- Single point of truth. The physical architecture of the facilities databases is complex with many operational systems with their own, often proprietary, data stores. The concept for enabling a single point of truth is data stewardship, which means that each data element has a single steward or owner responsible for keeping that data element current. The second concept is that all data is accessible across the organization.
- Empowering the field force. Wireless technology is enabling most field-workers to be connected directly to the central office. Organizations are implementing mobile solutions that enable field-workers to have immediate access to the records database and to provide valuable updates from the field. Field-workers are familiar with facilities because they work with them daily and they know that reliable, up-to-date information helps them be more productive. By enabling field-workers to participate in maintaining records data, data quality and timeliness is improved and field-workers are more productive.
Smart grid technology is transforming the industry. It will require more and better data to enable its management’s full potential. The application of information technologies is making it possible to break down silos of technology, to eliminate paper flows and to optimize business processes for records management to achieve and maintain the level of data quality smart grid requires.
Zeiss is director of technology at Autodesk Inc.
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