Killing Old Habits

To stay profitable and transform business, utilities must break with old habits.


By Bill Meehan, Esri

There’s a well-known saying that goes, “Old habits die hard.” All my life, I’ve struggled to manage my weight. I’ve probably lost 1,000 pounds in my life, but the problem is I’ve gained 1,050 pounds. If I really wanted to lose weight permanently, I would kill off my old bad habits for good, not just suspend them for a while during the diet and then bring them back again as soon as I lose enough weight. To really transform yourself, old, negative habits must die.

Electric companies are going through huge change. Regulators insist on unbundling utility components: generation, transmission, distribution, and retail services. In the old days of vertical integration, electric companies could make money on the strength of their business diversity. Today that’s less so. And to make matters worse, energy delivery, transmission and distribution (T&D), faces lots of unknowns, including weather, theft, vandalism, terrorism, and public scrutiny.

Not to mention self-generation. Customers are increasingly generating their own power from solar panels. This more than just adds complexity. It simply erodes utility revenue.

To survive profitably, T&D companies need to kill old habits. The rituals they’ve perfected since the time of Edison have to go.

Breaking Tradition

One utility tradition is not investing enough in managing, processing, and keeping up good data. Quality data is a fundamental requirement for solid operations and financial efficiency. How do T&D companies deal with incomplete, inaccurate, or out-of-date asset information? Easy. They have folks hop in a vehicle and see if their data is correct. If not, no big deal. The crew writes what they see. Later, if they have time, they correct the information in the office. So what if there’s a high cost in time and money?

There is a so-what, when utilities do this a lot.

Study after study shows shortcomings in T&D GIS data. The majority of T&D companies lack a complete facility record in GIS, for instance. Most also lack processes to ensure the timeliness of existing data. And in all too many cases, facility locations are not even close to GPS-accurate. In a several-year-old study, Esri asked utilities how long they need to get information from the field to the GIS. In some cases, utilities reported the time in weeks — not minutes, hours, or even days. The price they pay is lack of efficiency. Which equals higher costs, poorer customer service, and lower reliability. In some cases, the price is human. Accidents happen when data is wrong. While most T&D utilities now agree GIS is fundamental in some capacity, the simple existence of GIS is not enough.

The data has got to be right.

Keeping it Simple

A complete data set is costly, though. It takes resources to migrate, collect, and maintain data. Considering most utilities’ aging workforce and aging infrastructure, increasing cost exposure, dwindling margins, and growing customer expectations, it’s not hard to see why they doubt they have money left over to complete the data migration. Yet today, not having information — for instance, lacking records of the hard-to-reach assets such as underground facilities or secondary services — hurts businesses. Not only do processes depend on good data. The smart grid demands it.

Ironically, utilities often capture too much information. Their GIS needs only this critical information:

  • A complete facility inventory
  • Facility locations
  • The spatial relationships of assets to each other and to the world around them

I have seen GIS data models with pages and pages of extra information. Yet utilities maintain the vast majority of this information outside the GIS. And at the same time, further complicating the situation, not all the critical assets exist in GIS. Companies have too much information in one place. And not enough where they need it.

A utility can spend lots of time synchronizing information among systems. Yet GIS is at its best when pulling data from a variety of sources, internal or external, including information on business intelligence, customers, materials, work management, asset management, SCADA, distribution management, and network analyses. Utilities don’t have to store and maintain all this data in GIS. The GIS can pull it from other systems and add spatial context.

Luckily, T&D utilities are recognizing the critical nature of governing good data. Investing in data quality is gaining attention as being as important as investing in hard resources. Utilities are adopting GIS as a platform, meaning critical information can go where the workers go. While the same information stays in the office. And it can exist in their vehicles too. And in the woods, if need be. Actionable data can exist on any device, anywhere, anytime.

Making it Work

If I ever want to lose weight, my old eating habits must die. Likewise, if T&D utilities want to transform, their old data habits must die. No more defaulting to field checks for data accuracy. No more reliance on GIS as solely a mapmaking machine. Instead, companies must improve integration with corporate systems and invest in modern processes of data governance.

Learn more about Esri offerings for transmission and distribution.


Bill Meehan

Bill Meehan, P.E., heads the worldwide utility industry solutions practice for Esri. Author of Enhancing Electric Utility Performance with GIS, Modeling Electric Distribution Performance with GIS, Empowering Electric and Gas Utilities, Power System Analysis by Digital Computer, and numerous papers and articles, Bill has lectured extensively and taught courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts. Bill is a registered professional engineer. Follow Bill on Twitter.

Originally published at blogs.esri.com on March 20, 2015.

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