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What a migration to Esri’s Utility Network model can mean for Utilities and why to consider this now

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Since the introduction of Outage Management (OMS) and Distribution Planning (DPS) software in the mid-1990s, the need for utilities to manage a connected model representing their facilities and assets became a key driver for GIS implementations worldwide.  Beyond the traditional mapping and location-based capabilities a GIS brought to the market, it was the ability of a GIS to model how assets interacted and behaved in the form of a connected system that led utilities to establish GIS as a foundational system for their organizations. For example, functionality that understands how the state of a switch or valve affects downstream facilities--and the ability to manage and export this data—have become standard requirements in the utility industry, where previously simply the location of assets and their attribution were maintained.

This drove tremendous investment in the GIS market over the subsequent 20 years, establishing the GIS as the ‘system-of-record’ for most utilities’ connected models and related assets.  While peripheral programs involving GIS-based mobile, web and analytical technologies continued, programs investing in the core GIS and related model slowed over the past 5-10 years. This is due to the simple fact that most utilities had implemented a GIS, and having served OMS, DPS and other related system needs, the known business benefits associated with the GIS had already been met.  Business owners typically asked the question of consultants and vendors, “if my internal customers' needs are being met today, where is the value in additional investment in the core model already serving those needs?”

Over 20 years later, the release of Esri's Utility Network Management extension (UN) in January of 2018—combined with significant advances in the core Esri platform like modern distributed architecture patterns and services-based approaches—has a large amount of utilities revisiting the question above. This is not based simply on a new release of technology from a vendor. Instead, increased demands in the critical areas of safety, regulation, and grid modernization (for electric utilities), and the resultant pressure on how utilities perform asset management, operations and innovation in general, makes a conversation around how GIS can impact these areas (and how Esri's new capability can support this) timely.  

SSP Innovations has been consulting on these topics and implementing GIS-focused integration programs for utilities for almost two decades. Through many roadmaps, pilots and early implementation programs focused around leveraging the new Esri platform over the past 18 months, we’ve observed a common set of drivers for utility GIS investment strategies.  We’ve shared some of these trends below, hopefully providing perspective on the industry and the various paths utilities are taking toward technology evolution.

External Initiatives

As described above, a key driver for early GIS investment was the need to provide external systems with data, often in the form of assets, their attributes, and what other facilities they are connected to.  For OMS, DPS and Asset Management platforms, the target models in most cases have remained somewhat static, and therefore the demands on the GIS and related integrations have undergone little change.

As utilities consider Grid Modernization programs that include systems such as Advanced Distribution Management Systems and enterprise-wise asset management systems—both of which rely heavily on the GIS and supporting data model—questions arise as to how to ensure these systems can be supported in a way that meets business benefits associated with them (as opposed to the business benefits for GIS).

As the Esri UN supports modelling at a much more detailed level, we can enhance our approach to integrations from GIS and provide opportunities to revisit many aspects of this process. In the past, these opportunities may have been possible but required custom development and were challenging to maintain.  These include (but are not limited to):

  • Identifying where operations can be better supported through details such as representation of more devices within facilities or cubicles, or load breaking "elbow" fuses, which in many cases were not maintained in the GIS but now can be 
  • Identifying where alternate representations (schematic or “one-line” diagrams, which are now part of the core platform) can extract more detailed views of facilities, including substation details 
  • Responding to the growing needs of analytics in identifying failures and generating preventative (and/or reliability-centered) maintenance programs, which in the past focused on larger asset types, but now have expanded to include identification of a wider range of facilities and where they have may participated in incidents (failures of cable splices, gas fittings, etc)   
  • Identifying how and where facility types which can alter the behavior of a model (like distributed generation devices, charging stations, etc) should participate in the system, and in turn how internal customers/systems expect this information to be communicated.

Safety

 Safety, both related to customers and staff, has long shaped processes at utilities.  We’ve already discussed asset management tracking and analysis capabilities that can be enhanced by the use of the UN. But these are also examples of where the greater level of detail can support analysis that can help reduce incidents—incidents that can not only interrupt services, but also represent a threat to public (and staff) safety, and damage to assets themselves, such as wildfires caused by faulty items not tracked or maintained, or gas explosions.

These are safety incidents related to assets controlled or managed by the utilities. But the advent of social media and external sources of data also provides a means to warn utility staff and customers of external events that may represent an impact to their safety, like weather, traffic and 'active shooter' occurrences. Advances in the Esri architecture provide the ability to consume, filter, report and spatially display these types of events in near real-time, and we even have the capability to issue alerts, warnings and directions about these incidents to field devices.

Modernization/Automation

Many utilities began their investment in GIS well over a decade ago, with a handful of integrations to support internal customers and systems.  Today, this list of internal customers and systems has grown to the point where some utilities have literally hundreds of automated reports, extracts and integrations of varied formats.  Often these exist to serve assorted field users and paper processes.

Beyond safety improvements resulting from the ability to communicate events to the field or improve the quality of data shared with external systems, the new ability to integrate processes by employing a services-based architecture like the UN employs can improve the automation, efficiency and quality of processes that employ the GIS or GIS data. This approach, along with the opportunity to revisit integrations across the enterprise, allows utility IT departments to employ a more standards-based approach to supporting internal customer needs, in a form that reduces maintenance and total cost of ownership (TCO) of the solution through a more streamlined approach to support and a reduction in the cost of future upgrades and modifications.   

M &A and Application Rationalization

The past two decades have also seen a rapid increase in the number of mergers, acquisitions and consolidations of utility operating companies.  In most cases, the acquiring entity seeks to leverage economies of scale through optimizing not only business processes, but the tools, technologies and integrations that support these processes.  In many cases, the cost (and resistance) to drive changes can outweigh the measured benefit of standardizing solutions, and as such individual operating companies continue to maintain multiple solutions for the same purposes. 

Beyond the benefits already described that the UN can bring - and how that may contribute to the case to consolidate on a platform - the nature of the UN offering and the core models that Esri has published for both electric and gas provides added value for vertically integrated utilities.  The core models provide support for generation, transmission and distribution electric facilities across a range of network types (i.e. radial and mesh), along with gathering, transmission/midstream and distribution (including system/pressure/isolation tiers) for gas and pipeline companies.  

In the past, these groups within and across utilities often employed a variety of GIS-based applications - often with the same simple-yet-critical goals of creating and maintaining a quality representation of field assets and sharing this data with other systems.  Although a consistent need, it's not surprising for a utility to employ a dozen or more GIS-based applications, custom tools and/integrations - all of which are candidates for consolidation on a new more efficient, advanced, easy-to-use platform.  

"First to Market"

Early, aggressive forays into GIS in the late 1990's were often multi-system implementations involving not only the GIS but Work Management, Engineering Design, Inspection and Maintenance, Mobile Workforce Management, Distribution Planning, and Outage Management, all as part of one overall initiative. But utilities today have begun to take a more cautious approach to technology projects. 

For that reason, an investment in a UN program based on relatively recent technology may seem daunting.  But many utilities SSP is working with see opportunities to get ahead of the curve in the growth and expansion of these tools. This is in part to participate and benefit from the early community attention, excitement and collaboration new technology brings, while also serving to help shape emerging solutions to meet their needs. But the primary reason is simple: to engage their preferred vendors early and avoid the inevitable 'rush' that will follow in the coming years as the worldwide utility GIS community adopts this solution as a new standard. 

Summary

While the vast majority of asset information types maintained in a utility GIS platform is common across the market, the related methods, tools, processes, priorities, dependent programs and broader initiatives vary widely.  SSP has worked with a broad range of utilities, from co-operatives with less than 40,000 customers to the largest multi-commodity IOU companies in the nation. In helping our customers map their broader goals to the benefits realized from a GIS "refresh" using Esri's Utility Network Management extension, the connection between what the new solution provides and what the broader industry trends require is clear.  We anticipate that as more customers employ the technology in practice, we will be sharing more examples with the marketplace, to better serve the community as a whole.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 29, 2019 11:05 am GMT

This drove tremendous investment in the GIS market over the subsequent 20 years, establishing the GIS as the ‘system-of-record’ for most utilities’ connected models and related assets.  

Will be interesting to see how much advancement comes in the next 20 years compared with the gains realized during this past 20!

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