Manitoba Hydro Benefits from Mapping Solution Partnership

Manitoba Hydro Benefits from Mapping Solution Partnership

By Ken DePodesta, Kanotech Information Systems Ltd.

When Manitoba Hydro decided it wanted to improve its routine maintenance and emergency service programs, the utility realized that the project would require a radical overhaul of its GIS. The utility began working with Kanotech Information Systems Ltd., an Edmonton, Alberta-based consulting firm, and Autodesk Inc., a software company, to devise a unique mapping program that combined Kanotech`s GIS software with Autodesk`s AutoCAD software.

In the early 1990s, it became apparent to Kanotech that large public utilities were confronting a new information management challenge. As the scope and complexity of utility operations burgeoned, so did their reliance on GIS mapping to provide information essential for efficient, cost-effective planning and management. But at the time, GIS applications relied on higher-end UNIX systems that were incapable of efficiently creating the level of detailed mapping the utilities demanded.

The original solution developed for Manitoba Hydro overcame many of these restrictions and formed the basis for a long-term working partnership in which the synergy of the three companies yielded greater than expected benefits for all of them. Most notably, a corporate-wide GIS implementation for Manitoba Hydro`s entire electrical distribution system and an entry by Autodesk into the GIS business, leading to a long-term mapping solution that can now be used by other utilities struggling with a rapidly deregulating industry.

Partnership Confronts Mammoth Task

A glance at the scope of Manitoba Hydro`s operations helps define the task. The utility`s 5,000 MW capacity serves 391,000 customers sprinkled through 403,000 square miles of environment that, in the Northern winters at least, can be hostile to civilization`s infrastructure in general, and electric power distribution in particular. The bulk of the utility`s power is generated by 12 hydroelectric stations located throughout the province, thus providing Manitoba citizens with one of the lowest residential energy rates in North America. The logistical task of maintaining this vast network and responding to emergencies is formidable. Bad weather, for example, can become a nightmare for customers afflicted with power-outage problems and for harried repair personnel struggling to solve them.

Yet Manitoba Hydro was not content with simply offering low-cost power; it wanted routine maintenance and emergency service programs second to none. The five-year mapping project to create a computerized, updateable model of Manitoba Hydro`s power distribution systems dictated completely revamping the utility`s GIS. The project makes information accessible to all key personnel, rather than just the handful who are GIS literate, with a spatial data bank that is enormous in terms of both scope and complexity. It includes transformers, power lines and their supporting towers; anything, in fact, that might electrically describe a circuit, from wire size to conductor material to pole top configuration and line length. The utility owns almost 13,000 miles of transmission lines and more than 130,000 distribution transformers.

Despite the size of the project, Lance Maidlow, Kanotech`s president, believed the unique three-way partnership made the considerable obstacles surmountable. “As part of a project team at Manitoba Hydro, we provide advice on key technology issues and system architecture, as well as core level development. But application development is accomplished by Manitoba Hydro,” Maidlow said. “This approach has enabled the project to take maximum advantage of emerging industry standards and to ride the price/performance curves offered by the Windows and Intel standards. Specifically, the advent of powerful desktop GIS systems and the increasing performance of NT workstations have allowed Manitoba Hydro to upgrade its hardware and software to meet the project`s needs.”

When Manitoba Hydro`s decision to move to a distributed environment and add new query seats brought total system users to more than 100, it also posed some interesting challenges for the project team, Maidlow said. The solution was facilitated by Autodesk`s commitment to the GIS market three years ago. In the ensuing year, Autodesk released two new technologies to the GIS marketplace that became the backbone of Manitoba Hydro`s GIS solution–AutoCad Map and Autodesk MapGuide.

“Fortunately, our direct participation with Autodesk in the development of AutoCAD Map and the investment made in Kanotech`s MapGuide Center of Excellence, have permitted us to ride the leading edge of Autodesk`s GIS technology, Maidlow added. “In addition, the partnership permits the project team to devise annual upgrade strategies designed to meet short-term requirements, while also positioning the entire project for the next generation of technology.”

Two Days Work in Four Hours

Jim Campbell, Manitoba Hydro`s GIS project manager, quantified one aspect of the technology`s benefits. “Before GIS products enabled us to create system models, the planning required to solve customers` quality and level of service requirements took at least two days,” he said. “Our old process was the same as most utilities struggling to computerize and update their records. We`d get a file folder to see how the feeder (main power distribution artery) was designed and find maps that could be out of date by as much as six years. Then we`d have to drive out to the site, come back and draw a fresh map with the new data, and then key in all the updated information so that we could perform an analysis. Now we just bring up the feeder in question, run through some on-screen menu picks, and use the software to create an analysis. The whole process takes four hours or less. That resultant data is then immediately available to our design people.

“AutoCAD Map has already lived up to our hope that a wide range of people could use it effectively. Its integration of data with maps is really a boon to communications and analysis. Problems and concerns are so much more apparent when they`re graphically there in front of you, instead of in tables or in words. And AutoCAD MAP is clearly an outstanding platform for viewing or analyzing our power distribution systems.”

Campbell also was pleased with the ease of installation. “In the implementation and integration process, we did not encounter a single show stopper. We`ve continuously moved ahead without having to second guess ourselves,” said Campbell.

GIS Implementation Poses Tiered Challenge

“GIS implementation must address the wide range of skills and functions found among users, who can be broadly categorized as doers, users and viewers,” said Maidlow. “In the early years of an implementation, we generally work with the doers, highly skilled personnel who create and maintain the mapping and related database information. These doers typically represent less than 1 percent of an organization and comprise the historic realm of GIS applications. At Manitoba Hydro, the doers consist of approximately 40 core staff.”

According to Maidlow, however, once the core data was produced, it had to be distributed to technical users dedicated to maintaining up-to-date facility information. These users, who typically represent about 5 to 10 percent of an organization, turned out to be 200 employees at Manitoba Hydro. They needed access to core data but did not want to know the intricacies of the underlying technology. They require the data in order to make informed business decisions. Software cost became a more important issue at this level. To address the needs of this group, Kanotech worked with Autodesk and developed Spatialist Maps Query, a low cost viewer for AutoCad Map.

“Spatialist Maps Query enables users to create customized queries based on features, geographic and database conditions into a new drawing. Users can then browse the data with an integrated browser, cut and paste into other applications or red line the drawing for action by others. We plan to roll out the technology as part of Manitoba Hydro`s 1998 program,” Maidlow said.

“The final stage of GIS implementation,” Maidlow continued, “is bringing it to the data viewers, who constitute the other 90 percent of potential users. This group simply wants to find a segment of information or a map quickly, and perhaps paste it into another document. Per seat cost must be less than $100 and the application should require little or no training.” Autodesk`s MapGuide and another Autodesk product, the Whip driver, provided the needed solution. To take full advantage of this software, the R&D team is implementing core integrating components that are re-usable with all three Autodesk GIS technologies. Looking ahead to 1999, the software will enable Manitoba Hydro to widely disseminate its core data and design the overall solution to support web-based distribution.

“In summary, the seven-year relationship we`ve enjoyed with Manitoba Hydro, as with many of our other long-term clients, has been built on trust and mutual respect. GIS is a rapidly evolving technology, placing systems integrators and developers like us in a difficult position. But we`re successfully meeting such challenges,” Maidlow said. “We expect this three-way union to last a long time.”

If you would like to see more articles on this topic, circle R.S. 106.

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Designers produce work order drawings using the combination of orthophoto and cadastral as background along with reference mapping for the distribution network.

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Manitoba Hydro produces more than 30 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually and serves over 380,000 customers from 77 offices throughout the Province of Manitoba.

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