Why Electronic Maps Are Essential to Electric Operations

By Mani Vadari and Mike Burck, Accenture

Electronic maps are not only a replacement for the paper maps seen at most distribution control centers; more importantly, they represent the beginning of a transformation in the roles and responsibilities of system operators. They can be defined as the single interface from which an operator can perform all, or most all, of his daily tasks of monitoring and operating the transmission and distribution grids under both normal and emergency conditions.

Electronic maps also have the potential to help overcome a number of challenges currently plaguing the electric utility industry, including:

  1. The aging workforce;
  2. Operational inefficiency;
  3. Emergency response preparedness; and
  4. Dynamic workload management.

While many traditional operators cannot fathom forsaking their paper-based maps, new converts consider electronic maps to be invaluable and irreplaceable necessities. Most transmission control room operators have moved to using electronic maps over the last 20-plus years. Distribution, on the other hand, is an entirely different story where there has been a relatively small amount of penetration. While it may be difficult, an effective way to bridge the gap is to show a solution of increased efficacy and efficiency-one that solves the most common day-to-day issues, as well as the long-term challenges, associated with operator job function.

Benefit 1: Mitigates Impact of Aging Workforce

The aging of the utility industry workforce has become a huge source of concern for utility companies. It is anticipated that 30 percent to 50 percent of the operator staffs of some utilities will retire in the next five to 10 years. This creates a heightened level of criticality for electric operations since it typically takes two to four years of training before someone can become proficient in monitoring and operating the grid independently.

Continuing to monitor and operate the grid safely in the future will require utilities to rethink their present paper-based paradigm. This is where the electronic map can provide solutions. Today, the operator needs to maintain all the details and nuances of how the system operates in his/her memory. Without proper knowledge capture, this information is difficult to pass on to a successor because much of this information relates to events that may only happen once or twice in someone’s career.

In tomorrow’s “electronic map world,” this information will be stored in the system, and the system will simulate grid behavior through the use of tools like distribution power flow. Special nuances beyond the purview of tools will be stored online in documents that can be downloaded by any operator in the system. Electronic maps have the capacity to store and display large quantities of data. For instance: Operators will have all information on their screen demanding more from their skills and less of their memories; and, users of the system can document new information about a recent occurrence or call up a piece of data from a notation that is visible on the screen.

Electronic maps have the ability to transform the paradigm from forcing operators to rely on their memory to recall the behavior of the power system of a certain service territory to one in which they will rely on their skills to respond more to information regarding the system state.

Benefit 2: Increases Operational Effectiveness

The actions of control center operators are critical as they impact hundreds of people (thousands during severe storm situations). Paper-based maps are the antithesis of operational effectiveness since they compel a number of inefficient activities: They force a significant number of manual steps to perform routine and emergency tasks, which increases the time to complete tasks and increases the risk for errors; they force a greater likelihood of increased backlogs that support field and asset-management work; and, they force multiple levels of checking and re-checking of work because the paper-map can be out-of-sync with the as-built model in the field.

Electronic maps have a number of attributes and capabilities that increase operational effectiveness:

  • They reflect the real-time status of all changes the operator initiates. In addition, this provides for a single-place for managing all system-state (as-operated state).
  • They allow for an integrated set of systems, which leads to increased automation of activities like switching-order creation, clearance management, simulation etc.
  • They improve the disaster recovery capabilities by allowing the transfer of jurisdictional control to an alternate location.
  • They allow management to shift workload dynamically between control centers. If an area within a control center has increased amount of activity, that area could be re-organized to balance out the workload.

Electronic maps contribute to operational effectiveness through increased efficiencies by allowing the system operator to process more work faster with fewer errors.

Benefit 3: Better Emergency Management

In most utilities, emergencies happen a few days a year. Emergencies are characterized by significant levels of outages across a system. In this type of event, a large number of people across the utility are impacted, including trouble men, field crew, schedulers and system operators. How a utility responds in those situations can make or break the company’s image with its customers. The operations organization is the focal point during an event and must operate efficiently as it coordinates efforts in resolving the emergency. Key activities are hampered by the use of paper maps: The ability to disseminate data to as many resources within the company as possible is crucial. A paper map on a wall in a control room becomes a bottle-neck in the information dissemination process. Knowing the state of the system, where the outages are, which switches are open/closed, which transformers are working or not working, where the crews are and so on is very important. In the old environment, this information was managed on paper maps using push pins, magnets, etc.

Electronic maps and their built-in efficiencies become a natural catalyst for improving the emergency response of a utility.

Speed and accuracy are critical elements in responding to emergencies. The electronic map enables the utility to respond faster with better information available to more people. This allows them to become more effective at resolving the crisis.

Benefit 4: Enables Dynamic Workload Management

Control centers are staffed on a 24/7 basis. Even in low-workload situations, a control center still requires a minimal staffing crew. Paper-based maps drive inefficiency. A single operations center only has visibility into the real-time status of its operating area. If a utility has multiple operating centers, every one of them has to remain open 24/7. As a result, only staff in that center can assist in events. Once the desk capacity is reached, the queue of work begins.

Electronic maps provide an efficient way to allow sharing of system operations through various channels. In a wide-scale abnormal event, a utility could leverage mobile command centers to “plug in” and have live access to the current state of the system.

Also, during off-peak hours, a utility could “switch over” part of their operations to a central location which would directly increase the utilization of the off-peak operator and close out the under-utilized control centers. Conversely, during high-activity times, it would provide a way to transfer work from a busy jurisdiction to another control center that may not be as busy.

To achieve high performance operations, employees must be fully utilized during normal day-to-day operations and even more so during an abnormal event, where time is of the utmost importance. Dynamic work management provides for more efficient staffing patterns, which also allow for a better work-life balance.

GIS: The Key Enabler to Electronic Mapping

The electronic map is only as accurate as the system model contained within it. This model (for the most part) is provided by the geographic information system (GIS). The GIS and its related asset systems provide the foundation for electronic mapping. To achieve and maximize the benefits of electronic mapping, this system(s) requires complete and accurate data, strong supporting functions and processes, and a robust, integrated set of systems.

An electronic map relies heavily on a large amount of data, most of which is typically supplied by a company’s GIS.

  • Assets: Assets include switches (circuit breakers, line reclosers, fuses etc), transformers and other similar components that are operated by a system operator. A key question is “What is the minimum number of assets that are required to model the system?” A utility needs to analyze its goal for electronic mapping and strategically develop a long-term plan for its GIS.
  • Attributes: What characteristics of each asset are required to provide the desired capabilities for the electronic map? Ratings, location, and engineer/operator notations are just some of the data needed to operate off the electronic map.
  • Connectivity: How are the assets linked together? The electronic maps will turn these connection points into an operable schematic map.
  • Maps/Renderings: How will I reference the location of assets that are being operated? Maps typically come from a GIS which ensures the multiple use of the same graphical interface. Early planning of the maps focused on layering, de-clutter, symbology, SCADA/control interfaces, standardized naming conventions, layout of devices on maps, etc, will help ensure a highly usable product for the system operator.

Strong Supporting Functions

While utilities generally give primary attention to acquired data quality, they need to consider equally the processes around the management of the data:

  • Data upload: The move from paper maps to electronic maps comes with some constraints. It may not be as easy to mark up the maps with the most recent change using a pen or a pencil. As a result, it is very important to have key features like advanced posting of new equipment or configurations for online energizing, more frequent uploads of data (i.e., once a day), incremental uploads vs. full data uploads, etc.
  • Data maintenance: Maintenance processes will allow the various entities that use the data to submit changes (new additions, modifications to equipment ratings, errors identified in the field, etc) to be sent back in with an expectation of those changes being rolled into the new release of the data model within a pre-determined amount of time based on the criticality of the change.

Robust Integration

A utility company’s GIS and electronic map need to be very strongly integrated; efficient transfer of data from GIS to the electronic map is required. There are emerging standards in the form of Common Interface Model (CIM) for transmission and distribution, which is being accepted by most vendors and will enable different parts of the value chain to share information between each other.

Only The Beginning

Electronic maps provide a fresh look at a number of thematic issues facing the utilities industry today. Their ability to handle information and ease of capturing expertise is a great solution for mitigating the impacts of an aging workforce. The automation capability plays to a utility’s desire to improve operational efficiencies. Finally, with an electronic map’s ability to share data from multiple locations, a utility can mobilize its control center footprint with ease when responding to an emergency event.

This is only the beginning for electronic maps. Vendors are capitalizing on this potential and are developing the next generation of capabilities. The near future will show us such advances as advanced visualization for operators, providing users with different ways of looking at the same information in a more efficient way. Additional ties to other systems will provide additional capabilities and therefore event greater benefits to utilities in the future:

  • Integration with AMI/AMR to supplement observability of the current SCADA system by providing detail load data.
  • Integration with work management systems to support crew location and deployment for normal operations and emergency management.
  • Integration with weather systems and other environmental factors to track and manage emergency preparedness.

These capabilities and associated benefits are leading to a new wave of control center consolidations. Electronic maps allow for a further level of consolidation than would be possible just by transforming system operations using paper maps. There is enormous potential for not only the system operation side of an organization, but for all the other portions of a utility, leading to a high-performing T&D organization.

Michael Burck is a senior manager at Accenture and is a member of the T&D practice. He has almost 10 years of experience delivering business solutions to the electric utility industry in not only T&D, but also generation, energy trading, and RTO/ISO markets. He currently is focused on network management where he is building solutions for system operations clients.

Dr. Mani Vadari is a partner at Accenture and leads the network management area within the T&D practice. He is focused on T&D operations, outage management and intelligent networks. He has almost 20 years of experience delivering strategic solutions to the electric utility industry focusing on areas such as T&D grid operations, generation operations, energy markets, and RTO/ISO market participants.

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