A brilliant electrical engineer approached me with a request. He asked if we could model a complex control system in electric substations with GIS. To better understand what he wanted to do, I asked what problem he was trying to solve. He described several. First, the control system took incorrect action when faced with a failure in the power system. What happened was the control system tripped out a larger section of the grid than was necessary. The engineer thought that modeling the control system in GIS could help diagnose and ultimately correct this problem. I told him this was possible, but it would be complicated.
I tried to change the subject. I asked the engineer what was the biggest problem facing his company. He asked what I meant. What was the biggest problem from an engineering perspective? From another? I clarified. I meant, generally, what was his company's biggest problem? He said bad data, poor engineering standards, budget cuts, inconsistent operating practices, and more. I pressed further. Finally, he said, "Well, 60 percent of our customers don't pay their electric bills. Is that what you mean?"
Exactly—people didn't pay their bills. It was a tough problem—and totally unrelated to complex technology. However, technology could help. I told the engineer to map the intensity of this problem: where were the biggest pockets of people not paying bills? Then his company could attack the problem deliberately, systematically, and geographically.
The company had never done this. It had never used location to solve all its problems. It never applied a location platform to do anything more complex than model a substation control system.
What's a Location Platform?
A location platform is an enterprise information technology system. The platform gives every employee and contractor access to authoritative information, which is location enhanced. That means all this information can be displayed in the form of rich digital maps—at any time, on any device, in the office or out in the field. Seeing information like this and interacting with analytics can help solve the simplest problems, which, ironically, are often the toughest to solve.
In 2009, Esri ran a survey called Is Your GIS Smart Grid Ready? One question asked, After the completion of construction/maintenance, how long does it usually take to get your new construction/maintenance information into the GIS? Most responders said it takes 30–90 days. I hate to tell you, some utilities reported a year.
If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we move data from the field into the GIS in less than a month?
As an industry, we haven't recognized the full value of timely data access. That's bad news. The good news is, technology exists to solve that problem. A modern GIS platform can do this. The location platform Esri provides gives employees and contractors anytime access to authoritative information (e.g., assets, conditions, paying and nonpaying customers, oil spills, truck locations, measurements, even Tweets). They can access this from any device, anywhere. It also gives employees and contractors access to create and share information. You can even give this ability to your customers, such as through public outage maps and other applications. Just getting information to everyone is such a simple solution, but it's been tough and elusive for many companies.
A Bright Future
The electric utility business is a blend of very high tech processes. Just think of all the ones you can name without trying: advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), phasor measurement units (PMU), substation automation systems, SCADA, GIS—and even ancient rituals. Some of those rituals are okay, but we need to rethink many of them. That's the tough part.
By applying the concept of a location platform, utilities can eliminate some of those old rituals and simplify what they do. That improves execution. And better execution means taking less time to do maintenance. It can translate into measurable gains, like getting people their services faster, or immeasurably valuable gains, like meeting regulations more easily and avoiding confusion in the field (and thus reducing accidents and delays). These aren't complex problems. They are just tough ones to solve. Luckily, technology can help.
It's important today more than ever to improve execution. Not just operational execution—but execution in every company facet. The pressures keep mounting: You're seeing tougher access to capital, more competition from solar panels, the constant reality of assets wearing out, and people retiring faster than ever.
There's a bright future, though. It starts with technology.
We can use the location platform—in addition to staples like algorithms and advanced analytics—to make things work better. We can make stronger decisions—about how to collect more money from customers, reduce theft, improve customer experience, figure out where our best infrastructure investments lie, and endless more. Everything gets simplified. Execution simplifies. All thanks to a powerful location platform that solves your tough problems.
So ask yourself what I asked the engineer: What is the biggest problem your company faces? Chances are, technology has the answer.