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GIS evolves into backbone for cooperatives

A DECADE AGO THE INDUSTRY ACRONYM GIS brought to mind gas-insulated switchgear. Today, gas-insulated switchgear runs a far second to geographic information systems (or geospatial information systems) as the definition of that acronym. This modern GIS has transformed the utility landscape from traditional to cutting-edge, especially with cooperatives.
Originally put in place simply to replace old books and paper maps, GIS now benefits from an operational "creep" into other systems. Once the advantages became obvious, the uses for GIS began to multiply.
"From an operational standpoint, GIS is the backbone for anything that has to do with mapping," said Brad Hicks, principal transmission and distribution engineer for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). "It's used for a visual representation of their electric systems, but also for outage management, asset and vehicle tracking, rights-of-way maintenance and electrical models."
Steve Metheny, assistant general manager with Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) a cooperative in Colorado, put it eloquently: "A system designer can
design expansions without leaving the office in some cases. A dispatcher can look at structure type and advise appropriate repair materials in advance. An engineer can more accurately model the electric system for reliability and performance enhancements. Outages can be handled much more expeditiously."
In six simple words: GIS has made almost every-thing easier.


Where GIS works now
GIS all started with a conundrum about paper maps. "With paper maps, the crew's maps were outdated the day after they were printed and remained that way until new map books were printed the following year," said Jeremy Richert, director of engineering with Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative (MVEC), which provides electric service to over 14,000 members across 3,100 miles of line in and around Anamosa, Iowa.
So, along came GIS, which updated those maps, but GIS also allows a number of other benefits, such as smarter, more up-to-date hardware and software management. Utilities now know-in many cases for the first time-what's old, what's new, what's reaching the lifetime limit, what should last another 50 years.
Hicks added, "From an asset management standpoint, GIS allows utilities to know every nut, bolt and washer installed in the field, which helps with inspections by creating a history of issues found and repairs made."
Knowing those issues can be vital if a cooperative has borrowed money for equipment. There are detailed guidelines on inspecting equipment for U.S. borrowers, and those guidelines require documentation. So, the GIS serves as a repository for this vital inspection data, keeping all of it in a central location.
But, centralization isn't the only benefit of GIS. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the mobile aspect of GIS is just as valuable, according to Richert and Metheny.
So, GIS has made the lives of field crews significantly easier, especially in outage situations. Dispatchers now know where the crews are in the field and which crew is closest to the outage. More significantly, GIS can track a utility's best asset: the consumer.
Hicks revealed that a utility he worked for prior to his current stint with the NRECA has the GIS tied into the accounting system with map locations associated with customers. In a single-case scenario, the consumer calls in an outage, the outage management system (OMS) answers the call, identifies the phone number and links it to an account number (which is automatically linked to a map location number, resulting in the location popping up on the map). Additionally, if multiple consumers call in, the system can roll up the data together in a bundle along with asset and map information and predict locations for the outage. If, for example, five people on the same single-phase line call and report an outage, the system could predict the nearest up-line device with a problem, such as a fuse or a recloser. That's invaluable, active, immediate information that would have taken much longer before this positive GIS creep across utility systems.
At MVEC in Iowa, the utility has a real-time interface between GIS and the customer information system enabled by NRECA's MultiSpeak standard, allowing up-to-date consumer details to be available to crews in the field. Along with the consumer connection, the GIS interfaces with several other utility subsets: electronic staking, system engineering model, outage management system, AMI, mobile mapping for both field and office use, automated vehicle location.
At DMEA in Colorado, the GIS system is being utilized to design new facilities, model existing and planned facilities, and help troubleshoot during outage or during other operational issues. Additionally, DMEA is using GIS to locate faults using short-circuit data (fault currents) from substation devices immediately after events to create more accurate maps with impedance information and to help employees pinpoint areas needing repairs.
"Co-ops are always looking for multiple ways to use equipment and information," Hicks said. "GIS has really fit that bill perfectly, becoming vital to so many parts of the cooperative."


Where GIS is headed in the future
Richert noted that today's GIS systems "play a significant role in the automation of tasks that used to be done manually." Richert considers Maquoketa Valley's GIS system the center of the utility's technology hub that interfaces with many other software packages. Metheny says the same about DMEA.
Overall, GIS has made a huge impact on models for coop¬eratives, and Hicks expects that to grow even more over the next few years.
"A high percentage of co-ops use a model based off of their GIS," he noted. "I think there will be more emphasis put on that modeling connection, especially with the accu¬racy of the GIS and its use for connectivity."
Unless a cooperative has a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system with communications all the way down the line, which would allow for complete system monitoring, modeling is essential. (Richert not¬ed that MVEC has their GIS connected to SCADA with results displayed graphically including highlighting line sections where problems are likely to have occurred based on information recorded by SCADA. This process is com¬pleted within a couple of minutes, significantly reducing outage times.)
Typically, a SCADA system is only monitoring substations and a few key locations on the distribution system, approxi¬mately 10 to 20 values or points. That leaves a lot of gaps. Modeling works in those gaps, and, with a detailed field audit done first, a good GIS system can make modeling a lot closer to monitoring than guesswork.  Richert said that MVEC falls under Hicks' category of co-ops using their GIS for modeling. That modeling helps with engineering system studies in the areas of construction work planning, long-range planning, sectionalizing studies and arc flash studies.
"The GIS creates the connectivity model that is the cen¬terpiece of the cooperative's outage management system," he commented, revealing that the outage management sys¬tem helps MVEC manage and dispatch crews during outage events more efficiently. What used to take eight people now takes two or three.
Hicks added that, at the utility he worked for, they would use GIS and their electrical model in tandem, plugging in¬formation into the model to reveal locations on fault cur¬rent, issues and outages, as MVEC is doing.
"For utilities that have GIS, this is a typical practice. For the ones that don't, these are the benefits they long for," he said.
Along with GIS growing more in the modeling arena, Hicks revealed the possibility of GIS tying into advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems, allowing for auto¬mated notification of meter outage for dispatchers and crew.
DMEA is hoping to accomplish that in the next five years, according to Metheny, along with a connection to the meter data management system to allow for customer interaction on usage information.
MVEC's GIS is already AMI connected. According to Richert, to ensure AMI readings are using the appropriate communication path comparisons are done daily between the AMI database and the GIS polygon information to en¬sure all meters are communicating off of the proper device. The utility is alerted if there is a change, and that notifica¬tion can be especially helpful when putting in new meters. The GIS model is also used with AMI to automatically ping potentially affected meters when a system disturbance is recorded by the SCADA system. The results are displayed graphically on the GIS map viewer, and, in many instances, crews can be dispatched to the outage prior to receiving a call from the member.
For MVEC, Richert anticipates enhanced mobile work¬force applications for GIS, bringing even more system infor¬mation into the truck for field crews: SCADA, AMI and out¬age management all on the same digital map. Additionally, he sees GIS playing a larger, more central role in assisting with implementation and oversight of system maintenance programs (vegetation management, pole treatment, equip¬ment maintenance, facility upgrades).
Returning from what could be to the here and now, Richert labels the most important feature of GIS as the ability to produce a map that helps operate the system in a safe and reliable manner-no different than the pri¬mary role of paper maps before GIS. Beyond this primary mapping function, significant benefit comes from the GIS connectivity model and its ability to interface with other software packages.
"The GIS model and database play a major role in how technology is used at Maquoketa Valley," he said. "We've been able to use it to improve day-to-day operating effi¬ciencies and greatly improve service reliability to members. With the help of technology, MVEC has reduced outage time to members by 38 percent over the last 14 years. Without a functioning GIS system, our ability to take advantage of technology offerings would be severely limited."
At DMEA, it's the hub concept that ranks highest-the use of GIS to tie the plant, the customer and the electric sys¬tem together accurately, with timely updates and an intuitive graphical user interface.
First and foremost for NRECA's Hicks, outage manage¬ment is GIS' crown jewel; no other system impact is more important in his mind.
"If the meters aren't turning, revenue isn't being gener¬ated, reliability goes, and the consumer isn't happy," he said. "The opportunity that co-ops have to fine-tune mem¬ber restoration, that is one of the most important features GIS brings."


WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE UTILITIES ON THE IMPLEMENTATION AND USE OF GIS?
BRAD HICKS, NRECA // Spend the time and the money to gather the data. Don't base your decisions and your design off of a paper map. If you spend the time to go out and do a field audit, you're not only gathering data for the GIS, but you're taking the time to get to know the details. Be aware of the fact that the paper maps are outdated. Things were removed or added that may not have gotten posted. That's the key to getting it right. It's much more difficult to correct errors after the fact. Do the audit first.


JEREMY RICHERT, MVEC // Make sure to have the staffing resources available to maintain the GIS and keep it current. If used prop¬erly, it is a critical component of a cooperative's technology sys¬tem, and it needs to be maintained so that all systems can oper¬ate accurately and efficiently. Too many co-ops use the GIS only for maps and don't maximize all that a GIS system has to offer.

STEVE METHENY, DMEA // Learn from others before you. Answer the questions of the problems you are trying to solve in advance: How detailed do you want your inventory to be? While you are there, what other information could/should be collect¬ed and how will it be used in the future? More importantly, how¬ever, is how will all the system inventories be updated? It takes a lot of effort, but once the system is integrated and properly updated, it can be a tool that becomes essential in serving the electric customers.



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