Spatial Technologies--Communication is Key

30 Sep, 2005 By: James L. Sipes Cadalyst

How the utility industry uses GIS.

Figure 1. FirstEnergys GIS View provides anyone in the company who needs information a seamless view of the distribution facilities and blended data from other enterprise systems in one easy to use Web-based interface (Autodesks MapGuide/Gatekeepers Navigate).
Figure 1. FirstEnergys GIS View provides anyone in the company who needs information a seamless view of the distribution facilities and blended data from other enterprise systems in one easy to use Web-based interface (Autodesks MapGuide/Gatekeepers Navigate).
Five years ago, I would’ve written about the GIS revolution in the utility industry. Virtually all major companies were implementing some type of enterprise GIS, so everything was fresh, new and exciting. Today, it’s rare that a utility company doesn’t use GIS extensively. The technology is so pervasive that virtually all aspects of day-to-day operations in the utility industry are connected to GIS.

Embracing GIS Technology

A number of reasons explain why utility companies have so eagerly embraced GIS. Utility companies must accurately represent their resources and provide a structure that can be easily organized, managed and updated. That is one of the strengths of GIS technology. Because of this, most utility companies have either already converted their legacy data into GIS format, or are in the process of doing so.

Fundamentally, utility companies seek to improve communications internally, with customers and with the various agencies they work with. Being able to identify problems and send out work crews in a timely manner is a key to customer satisfaction. Utility companies are also using GIS in part to help them comply with state and federal laws, environmental regulations, inspection requirements and mandates from regulatory agencies. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of the Department of Energy even requires that transmission companies use GIS maps when submitting applications. GIS can help track infrastructure assets and costs. Asset information involves predictive maintenance, corrective maintenance and load forecasting and planning. GIS can help identify where problems are and how to best address them. It can also help predict future areas of concern. Every utility company has to address business processes such as economic development, inventory and bad debt management, marketing, fleet management and risk management. Utility companies also have strict standards to meet in regard to their accounting and financial practices. A centralized business and accounting system should lead to greater cost savings.

CAD Connection

Utility companies are discovering that using GIS can help shorten the design process, resulting in lower costs and a quicker turnaround on projects. Many utility companies use CAD for site designs and for as-built drawings to document existing conditions. CAD systems are much more effective than GIS when it comes to developing and editing line drawings. One way to help link CAD and GIS is to georeference CAD drawings so that they can be added to a geodatabase.

GIS also helps maintain utility facilities. If there is a storm and your electric is out, what do you do? Most people call their local utility company to find out what’s wrong and how soon it will be fixed. Utility companies use a GIS to match the customer phone number to a point on a map, and from there they are able to dispatch a work crew to take care of the problem. Mapping the calls can also help managers analyze and predict future problems in the system.

Many utility companies are now focused on improving integration of databases from diverse applications. Having a common database helps maintain consistency and reduces redundancy in the system. Centralized data warehouses facilitate data sharing and increase access to geospatial data. They also help ensure that everyone within the organization is using the most up-to-date information. This is critical for utility companies that are constantly updating information.


One company that has fully embraced GIS is FirstEnergy Corp., a diversified energy company based in Akron, Ohio. It serves 4.4 million customers spread out over three states—Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey—making it the fifth largest investor-owned electric company in the country. FirstEnergy’s service area measures 36,100 square miles, has around 11,502 miles of transmission lines and includes 84 interconnections with 13 electric systems. This makes day-to-day operations a challenge.

FirstEnergy is involved in electricity, energy management and other energy-related services. It operates 20 power plants and produces energy from coal, nuclear power plants, oil, natural gas-fired facilities and hydroelectric facilities. FirstEnergy’s subsidiaries involved with facilities provide services such as heating, ventilating, air conditioning, refrigeration, process piping, plumbing, electrical, building controls and systems and facility management that help customers be more productive at home and at work.

Every day, FirstEnergy sends out crews to maintain and repair its resources. To keep up with the increasing demand, FirstEnergy started using GIS in 1993. Its system was fully operational in all three states in 2000.

“GIS is pervasive and is a part of everything we do. At FirstEnergy, GIS is the system that owns the data,” says Kevin Miller, business solutions manager for FirstEnergy. “Virtually every part of our distribution operations has been touched by GIS. All the systems that use that type of information get it from our GIS structure.”

FirstEnergy customers may not be aware of it, but GIS also has a big affect on their service. If a customer requests new service, FirstEnergy staff use GIS data to locate the address, schedule the work, coordinate activities and get workers out to do the work.

Because GIS is costly to obtain, organize and manage, the more FirstEnergy is able to integrate it into its day-to-day operations, the greater the value it receives.

One of FirstEnergy’s highest priorities is reliability. According to Miller, in recent years FirstEnergy has been developing a system that allows it to focus on low-performing circuits. “In the last year, we’ve used GIS and Web-based GIS technologies to analyze outage information at the customer level,” notes Miller. A small circuit may be up to 20 miles in length, while larger circuits can extend up to 100 miles. “Instead of identifying an entire circuit as low-performing, we can now identify a 300’ segment of the circuit that is the problem. With the tool we are putting together,” says Miller, “we are able to look at an entire service area, identify the hot spots and put together a plan to address them.”

Virtually every state has a Call Before You Dig program, in which anyone who plans any kind of excavation calls in to have all underground utilities marked beforehand. This helps ensure the safety of the public while also helping protect utility lines from damage.

Figure 2. FirstEnergys GIS View lets users have predeveloped, themed views such as this view of operational history data in a geospatial context with distribution facilities.
Figure 2. FirstEnergys GIS View lets users have predeveloped, themed views such as this view of operational history data in a geospatial context with distribution facilities.
With an accurate GIS database to work from, a utility company can quickly determine the location of any lines in question and more efficiently send workers to the job site to mark the lines.

FirstEnergy uses a call screening system for its Call Before You Dig program. Every call goes to the call screening center, where the call’s origin is indicated on a digital image of a ticket that indicates the property where digging will take place. This location is compared against a geodatabase that includes all underground facilities. If underground facilities are located near the site in question, it’s forwarded to a contractor locator. “Our call screening system meets the calling requirement of the states we work in by using IVR technology to call the caller and play them the appropriate message,” says Miller. All utility companies are concerned with the maintenance of physical resources. Most see the advantage in using GIS to help with maintenance, but for many it’s been a struggle to input adequate data to make this a reality. FirstEnergy has very good data for maintenance planning because it implemented a process in 1998 based on how it traditionally gathered information in the field.

To help various departments in the company do their jobs better, FirstEnergy is upgrading its GIS base to include Autodesk products and Oracle database technologies. These upgrades include Autodesk Map 3D for core GIS users and Autodesk MapGuide to make the technology more accessible throughout the company.

The utility has a robust, mature back-end system, and yet recognizes the need to update its front-end user interface and to find more efficient ways to share geospatial information with nontechnical users. FirstEnergy has had a limited Web presence up to now. That will change soon, because the company is making a push toward using Web-based tools to provide internal access to accurate, up-to-date data in real-time (figures 1 and 2, p. 49, 50). “We want to allow people to use GIS tools to answer their own questions,” notes Miller. FirstEnergy has a core group of about 600 who use GIS daily, and another 2,000 who use GIS on a regular basis.

The Evolution of GIS

Not so long ago, we would have been talking about this revolutionary new approach of using GIS to manage utility facilities. Today, however, the activities are more evolutionary in nature. The majority of utility companies that implemented GIS a couple of years ago have not changed their focus and are still trying to find ways to be more effective and better meet the needs of their customer base.

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