Like most utilities, Guelph Hydro Electric Systems Inc. faces growing challenges in reducing costs while enhancing operations and ensuring the safety of employees, contractors and the general public. Putting its existing resources and common technology (such as the Internet) to work, the utility developed a Web-enabled geographic information system (GIS) application that has revolutionized its entire operation, saved the utility from making a CDN$500,000 investment on an outage management system and inspired 17 other utilities to follow in its footsteps.

Guelph Hydro is a municipally owned Canadian electricity supplier that serves 50,000 customers in the city of Guelph and the village of Rockwood in the province of Ontario. The utility has been using GIS technology for nearly two decades to manage various types of location-based information. With the widespread use of the Internet and significant developments in GIS, Guelph Hydro worked to leverage the strengths of both technologies to increase efficiency in its operations.

In 2003, the utility converted all its paper and computer-aided design (CAD) maps into GIS maps, which has allowed its more than 100 employees to easily access and analyze a wealth of information to support decision making.

Guelph Hydro worked with ESRI Canada to implement ESRI's ArcGIS technology as its GIS platform. Making the move to GIS created numerous opportunities to integrate the technology with other systems and apply Guelph Hydro's geographic data to various processes, such as engineering drawing creation, thematic mapping and asset management. GIS also is used to track and maintain information on the age of all the utility's network assets, supporting compliance with International Financial Reporting Standards. GIS has allowed Guelph Hydro to maximize the use of its data and existing technology investments.

A Clear View of Operations

Recognizing the advanced integration capabilities of GIS, Guelph Hydro built a Web map application in 2009 that combines several independent applications into a single GIS. The application was built in two months using ESRI's ArcGIS Server API for Flex, an advanced programming interface for developing applications on the Adobe Flex framework. The Web map application is used to deliver several other internal applications that link back to Guelph Hydro's customer information system, which displays historical information on meter readings and current information on customer billing.

Through the Web map, staff can view and analyze numerous data layers, including poles, buildings, streetlights, transformers, electrical switches and vehicle locations. They also can view high-resolution aerial imagery of the areas Guelph Hydro serves. The GIS integrates with the utility's trouble-call system, allowing staff to see all trouble-call locations on an online map. This helps control room staff easily identify outages and promptly dispatch service crews. They also can see lightning strike locations across Guelph and Rockwood, since the map receives a real-time feed from a weather service.

In the past, to pinpoint an outage, Guelph Hydro had to rely on customers to call in when they lost power. The utility had to wait for multiple customers to call in before it could track the possible cause of a problem. Now massive amounts of information stream in at almost the moment a power outage occurs. Line crew dispatch happens very fast. Also, the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system enables automatic restoration through remote switching.

Because of the Web map application, Guelph Hydro did not have to make a significant investment in a new outage management system, which would have cost at least $500,000. The application has increased the return on investment for the existing GIS by expanding its use. Local utilities are required to report the frequency and duration of outages to the Ontario Energy Board, which issues service-reliability indices for the province. The Web GIS includes advanced reporting tools that enable Guelph Hydro staff to prepare the required outage reports directly through the system.

Increasing Field Efficiency

The new application has simplified the asset inspection workflow for utility field crews equipped with mobile units. Previously, they had to bring numerous documents with them to the inspection site to record the asset condition. The reports then had to be cataloged by street and filed in the office, where they were discarded after a few years. This manual process sometimes resulted in files being misplaced and inspections being missed or duplicated.

Today, the quality and speed of field inspections have improved. Field workers can now fill in online inspection forms by accessing the Web map on their laptop or handheld device. Clicks bring up a form displaying all the asset information. They perform the inspection and record any problems using their field device. The information is automatically uploaded to the utility's database, where it is stored and can be easily retrieved even after many years.

The accuracy and safety of field inspections also have improved significantly. Having access to the mapping system, field workers can easily look up critical information as they go about their work and make informed decisions. This also helps to ensure all aspects of the inspection are done properly, adding to quality control. Being able to update information in the field enhances data accuracy. It reduces errors and saves time because inspectors fill in the information directly, rather than having another person read the inspector's handwritten report and enter it manually into the system.

To assist line crew supervisors in effectively directing field workers, the utility integrated Research in Motion's Black-Berry enterprise server with ArcGIS, which allows staff to access the Web map on smart phones. It also keeps supervisors up to date about current outages, enabling them to better respond to customer queries.

Since the Web map integrates with the utility's automatic vehicle location (AVL) application, Guelph Hydro's control room personnel can locate service vehicles in real time and efficiently route service calls or site inspections. The integration of the utility's AVL application with the high-voltage mapping layer in the GIS also has given control room personnel the ability to monitor field crews, allowing them to take the necessary precautions to avoid injuries or accidents.

Building a Smart Grid

In line with Ontario's smart grid initiative, the province mandated all residential and commercial utility customers in the province be equipped with a smart meter by the end of 2010. With 50,000 meters to replace, Guelph Hydro successfully met the deadline by integrating its meter replacement process with its GIS.

Through the Web map application, field workers were able to capture all data regarding the meter replacement and send it back to the central database. They used the built-in camera on their handheld units to take a picture of the meter being removed as well as its replacement. With the handheld unit's barcode scanner, they recorded the new meter number and entered the name of the person doing the exchange.

They also record problems such as restrictions to exchanging the meter through the application. As soon as a meter was replaced, a work order was automatically created and sent back to Guelph Hydro's SQL server, where it went through a stringent validation process before the work order was closed. Putting Guelph Hydro's meter replacement process on top of the mapping system has significantly boosted the overall productivity of field workers. Two people replaced approximately 150 meters/day. Automatically generating the work orders reduced the paperwork. The application also allowed the utility to view meters being replaced in real time, so adjustments could be made, when needed.

Guelph Hydro is using GIS as a foundation for its smart grid. One of the first smart grid applications it rolled out is the outages summary application, which automatically displays city locations that have no power. Since GIS provides the grid with the ability to discover and respond to events in the field, with little or no user intervention, Guelph Hydro is enhancing the application by adding a function that will allow the system to auto respond to outages as soon as an area loses electricity.

More to Come

In the future, Guelph Hydro will use Web mapping to enhance communication with its customers. The plan is to use GIS maps with color-coded features to depict the type of outage — from temporary outages to longer-term severe blackouts — with the estimated restoration time. For example, if a tornado ever passes through the city of Guelph, specific areas on a map of the city will be color-coded based on when power is estimated to be restored to help customers plan their activities accordingly. The utility also plans to develop public Web maps that show where construction work is taking place.

With the success of its GIS implementation, Guelph Hydro is working with 17 other utilities in Ontario to replicate its Web mapping application and enable them to take advantage of the same benefits that have put Guelph Hydro on the map.


Dan Amyot (damyot@guelphhydro.com) is the director of IS at Guelph Hydro Electric Systems Inc. He joined the utility in 1993 and led the development of Guelph Hydro's award-winning GIS. Currently, he co-chairs the GIS Ontario Electrical Utilities Leadership Forum, is on the advisory panel for the Canadian SunGard Users Group Association and is a member of the Ontario Regional Common Ground Alliance.

Companies mentioned:

Adobe www.adobe.com

ESRI Canada www.esricanada.com

IFRS Foundation www.ifrs.org

Ontario Energy Board www.ontarioenergyboard.ca

Research in Motion www.rim.com