GIS evolves into backbone for cooperatives
Insights from the NRECA
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 as the definition of that acronym. This modern GIS has transformed the utility landscape from traditional to cutting-edge, especially with smaller rural utilities and 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, right-of-way maintenance and electrical models. GIS has made almost everything easier.”
What started as a way to keep track of maps easier and change those maps quickly has morphed into an essential utility tool. Yes, those maps are now digitized, but few people understood a decade ago what having those maps digitized could mean. GIS allows for 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.”
Additionally, GIS has made the lives of field crews significantly easier, especially in outage situation. Dispatchers now know where the crews are in the field and which crew is closest to that 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.
“Co-ops are always looking for ways to benefit from their existing equipment and information infrastructure,” Hicks said. “GIS has really fit that bill perfectly, becoming vital to so many parts of the cooperative.”
As far as future GIS “creep,” Hicks revealed the possibility of GIS tying into AMI systems, allowing for automated notification of meter outage for dispatchers and crew. And, as the GIS connects to more systems--and connects those systems more closely together--it becomes more and more valuable to rural utilities and cooperatives looking to serve their members in the most efficient way possible.