The Role of GIS in the Smart Grid

15 Nov, 2011 By: Christine Easterfield

As two-way communications enhance dialogue between power consumers and suppliers, network operators are beginning to require location as a standard for effective system management.

Many factors are changing the way our energy networks operate: regulatory agencies, the rise of renewable energy sources, and smart technologies that drive intelligent devices in the home or along the network. As the electrical power grid grows ever smarter, these developments are causing organizations to take a closer look at the technologies that support the management and operation of the network.

Up to now, energy networks have been a one-way channel from generation to consumption, but emerging technologies that enable two-way communications are creating the possibility of a dialogue between the consumer and the supplier. This results in a consumer who knows in real time how much power they are using (and at what cost), and a utility that has better management, pricing, and forecasting tools for its network.

It also blurs the distinction between consumer and provider, enabling the customer to become an occasional supplier as local generation facilities and the use of electric vehicle batteries for load-balancing storage become a reality. Manufacturing businesses may even find themselves making minute-by-minute decisions about switching on their generators, either to send power to their factories, or to sell it to the grid.

Who, What, and Where

This greater involvement with the energy consumer has implications for the records that infrastructure companies maintain. What we used to call "mapping the last mile" — referring to the leg of the network that reaches the customer — is now crucial to understanding how each consumer is connected. Network managers need to know where a far greater number of occasional, distributed generation points (such as industrial sites or rooftop solar panels) connect with the grid, and what impact they have on the overall power flow.

Location has always been a crucial consideration, whether network operators are calculating losses, balancing loads, or planning new extensions. These latest changes create demand for technology that has location as a standard component, supporting new devices, software, and services throughout the system — from the generation plant to the consumer's meter.

The Provider's Perspective

With this wealth of opportunity, how are location-based software and geospatial technology suppliers addressing the issue? Conversations with some of the largest suppliers of geospatial information solutions (GIS) to utility companies show variations in their approach.

Esri recently commissioned a survey that asked utility companies, "Is your GIS smart grid ready?" The results are not too surprising; most ranked "smart grid readiness" as strategic to their plans, though none had achieved readiness in all areas. The majority had problems keeping their data up-to-date, with around 25% reporting data over six months out-of-date, only 30% managing to update data within ten days of work completion, and just 10% updating their GIS data within one day of work completion. Perhaps most telling was that less than 70% reported having a complete model of their primary network.

"As utilities move closer to full-scale implementation of smart grid, they encounter new questions and challenges," said Bill Meehan, director of Utility Solutions for Esri. "As the survey results show, many utilities admit a need to update data. This crucial step aligns subsequent smart grid activities —managing the installation of smart meters and sensors, analyzing customer behavior, incorporating renewable energy, and so on.

"Survey respondents are already counting on GIS technology to help them answer their smart grid questions and address smart grid challenges," Meehan continued. "We say GIS makes the smart grid smart because GIS works with data on an interactive map where it can be updated, understood, and shared."

It is clear that data readiness is a large part of being able to fully utilize the tools available in standard GIS; without an accurate record as a starting point, there is risk of compounding the problem as new data is laid over error-prone, historic data.

Back to Network Basics

Situations and needs vary across the globe. Tony DiMarco, director of Global Utilities and Communications at Intergraph, explained that the needs of smart grid in the developed world differ from what is important in the emerging markets.

According to DiMarco, "In the emerging markets, like parts of Asia Pacific, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, we see network mapping and asset registry, and field work to establish a complete customer database, are foundational components of a future smart grid, and for many [those] are the drivers today. For those emerging markets, [the emphasis is on] GIS and many of the field measurement tools, and use of differential GPS to build a complete network map. Having a complete network map and a complete customer database are fundamental to smart grid."

Data availability is important, but so is having the ability to vary the approach according to need. DiMarco continued, "In the developed markets, the network is usually well mapped, even if only on paper, and customer information systems are well established. Smart grid in those markets will focus on connecting smart meters to the network, and then further utilizing the network model to expand on the operational benefits that outage and distribution management systems can provide once you have this data.

"Again, the GIS developed network model, or the infrastructure management systems, are key to smart grid, and provide the foundation for those advanced smart grid applications in the control room. Depending on the maturity of the commercial utility enterprise, the initial focus for smart grid can be very different, but in all cases, the network map and accurate asset registry are prerequisites."

GIS: Fundamental or Supplemental?

At Bentley Systems, the focus is on supporting engineering design first and foremost, with the geospatial aspect merely one tool in the box of solutions. According to Richard Zambuni, global marketing director of Geospatial and Utilities at Bentley, "There is still some marketing hype around the use of GIS in smart grid — of course you need GIS for smart grid design and operation, equipment location is a key factor in the successful running of a network — but that is simply what GIS has always done; it's not new.

"Where changes may come is where distributed generation means new focus on transmission design," Zambuni opined. "Currently this is different from, for example, substation design, which can be done with a single tool. Once out on the network, multiple tools handle corridor design, support design, equipment design, and so on. What design engineers are looking for is a coordinated design interface. Currently even the data doesn't flow easily between these tools."

All of these factors are crucial and should be taken into consideration together — after all, even the cleverest engineering application is rendered useless if there is little confidence in the data. So what should utilities be looking for? Incumbent GIS tools may already have addressed one or more of these considerations, but as the opportunity for a technology refresh is presented, then the approach to smart grid support should be a primary part of the mix to ensure optimum development and operations.

About the Author: Christine Easterfield

Christine Easterfield

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