The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Could Funnel Funding into the Smart Grid in the future. With that in mind, utilities need to make sure that their geospatial information systems (GIS) are prepared for the technology that lies ahead.

Buzz surrounded this topic at the recent GITA Geospatial Infrastructure Conference in Tampa, Florida, U.S. GITA highlighted geospatial best practices for electric and gas utilities, and speakers covered such topics as the smart grid, the stimulus package, mobile technology and asset management in more than 100 educational sessions.

Following the conference, Bill Meehan, director of utilities for ESRI, presented a checklist to help utilities prepare for the smart grid. These five key points may come as no surprise to GITA members who are continually focused on geospatial technology. Some utilities are also on the leading edge when it comes to the smart grid. Some companies, however, are just now learning about this technology, and by being prepared, they can take advantage of opportunities down the road.

Meehan suggests this checklist when evaluating a utility's GIS readiness for smart grid:

  1. Ensure quality of GIS data

    The data quality that exists in the GIS must be outstanding. While not desirable, it is even somewhat tolerable to have a few errors on a planning or asset map. However, it is not acceptable to have incorrect data in a system that automatically controls the electric distribution system. Errors could result in increased outages or, worse, accidents. Reviewing data quality and assurance processes help to address this concern.

  2. Keep documentation

    Historically, utilities have a backlog of documentation about completed work in the field to be posted to the GIS. Data currency requirements for smart grid operations suggest that utilities must measure the time spanning from when a change occurs in the field to when the change is reflected in the GIS. As the time increases from seconds to minutes to days to weeks, so does the risk of something going wrong.

  3. Get up to speed on land bases

    Utilities are now able to build a GIS on an accurate land base. Since GIS has been used by utilities for more than 20 years, it predates GPS. Utilities that continue to base facility location on antiquated grid systems will not be able to successfully use GIS until they make the land base and facility information spatially correct. They can leverage advanced tools to assist in the corrective process, but it is still highly labor-intensive and time-consuming.

  4. Build an electrical model

    Lack of a digital model of the electrical system — whether urban, overhead, underground, networked, radial or some combination therein — will limit the overall effectiveness of the smart grid. Some utilities have built a GIS piecemeal, with some parts of the service territory converted to digital form and others still in CAD (computer-aided design) or even paper form. Many have only converted primary data and not secondary networks. The piecemeal approach is not effective if GIS is to be the heart of a smart grid. The installation of intelligent devices in portions of the network that have not been modeled will inhibit much of the usefulness of the equipment.

  5. Link customer data to the GIS

    A large problem for utilities is the lack of good customer addressing information. Some utilities do not have tight processes to make sure new customer data is linked directly to the GIS. If GIS does not have an exact correlation of the customer premises and the electric system, any hope of automation and self-healing will be lost. Once the system is in place, it is critical that utilities have a foolproof quality-assurance process that guarantees that as they add new customers to the system, those customers are reflected as connections to the electrical network.

Since the idea behind the smart grid is to add more monitoring capability and control to the electric system, enterprise GIS is fundamental to its success. It is imperative to have a solid model of all electric assets including their condition and relationships to each other, to customers and to the telecommunications systems that will drive the smart grid. Utilities must have processes and procedures in place to ensure accurate and timely GIS data so that the smart grid will be able to make automated decisions based on correct information.

Today, utility dispatchers make the vast majority of switching decisions based on human interpretation. Without human intervention, the smart grid must rely on a near-perfect GIS model of the electric system.


Roxanne Cox-Drake (rcoxdrake@esri.com) is a chapter liaison to the GITA board. She also serves as the strategic marketing manager for ESRI Industry Solutions, Redlands, California.

Note: Interested in engaging with other utility professionals to find out more about this or other topics? A key benefit of GITA membership is the opportunity to network with peers and exchange ideas on the challenges facing our infrastructure organizations. Contact GITA for more information, or visit http://www.gita.org.