Smart Grid Solves Many Problems, Introduces Others

GIS can help you answer tough smart grid questions

Smart grid is about four things:

  • Smart meters—Smart grid gives us more information about the energy we use. Smart meters will help us use less energy. Consequently, we will save money and reduce our carbon footprints.
  • Better electric reliability—Our electric infrastructure is old and fallible. Smart grid includes smart sensors to help utilities locate problems and help the electric utility grid heal itself.
  • Making green energy work—Solar and wind power are quite different from the traditional sources of electricity such as hydro, coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Like the weather, green resources are unpredictable. Smart grid will work to regulate the ebb and flow of renewable energy.
  • Smart grid phone home—By tapping telecommunication networks, smart grid will alert utilities to problems before they even happen.

Along with the good of smart grid come the complex questions. These questions are new to utilities, customers, and regulators. How will we differentiate meters that are accurately reporting power failures from those that are faulty? What will happen when a major storm knocks out the electric system and the monitoring system at the same time? What will utilities do if customers don’t want to adjust their behavior, or they revolt over privacy issues? How will utilities maintain more equipment when a bulk of the workforce is retiring soon? How will utilities deal with increased maintenance and capital costs?

These are tough questions.

The first step in finding answers is to accurately assess the situation. Let’s take a look at current and future infrastructure assets—evaluate their condition and relationship to the community. We can do this by creating a complete model of the electric network in a geographic information system (GIS). With all our data tied to location and visible on one GIS-based map, we then use GIS analysis tools to plan and prioritize. Most utilities today have some form of GIS, but few really use GIS to resolve sticky strategic issues.

It is time for utilities to take stock in GIS, to make sure their data and operating picture is ready to drive the smart grid.

How ready are utilities to deal with the opportunities and challenges of smart grid?

Bill Meehan

About 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.
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  1. Temitope Adelaja says:

    I am Tope Adelaja, an instructor of ArcGIS Desktop and its extensions at Lagos State, Nigeria.Well, i believe the issue of smart grid should be introduced to Nigerian Government,because we have been focusing on hydro alone and natural gas.
    We need a paradigm shift to other sources like Solar and Wind power,so we can leverage the power of GIS and by showing all how on a mashing up all this layers on a GIS Map,Federal government would buy into this idea because there is a lot of prospects in the smart grid, in other words integrating it with hydro source of energy,Nigeria would be a better place.

  2. Temitope Adelaja says:

    Smart Grid, the way forward to better power and utility management

  3. Bill Meehan Bill Meehan says:

    Thanks to Temitope. GIS plays a critical role in a number of facets of renewable energy. Certainly, GIS is used for exploration for resources, development and siting of associated facilities. Further GIS can be leveraged for construction, operations and maintenance for these distributed resources.

  4. swarna kumar says:

    Dear Bill Meehan,
    High Resolution ( one metre & submetre) imagery is being used to digitise roads, built-up areas and other details. Power lines with poles are surveyed using Total Station. This is resulting in poles falling on buildings or middle of the roads. How can this be resolved if client insists on the use of HRS Imagery ?

  5. Brent Jones Brent Jones says:

    Swarna – From this information, it seems that the control that the surveyors are using doesn’t line up with the orthorectification that was used to process the imagery. This could have occured for a variety of reasons, but I would check the projection of the imagery first to be sure it the same as the survey control. Once you understand the projection/control parameters of the imagery and survey control, you will be able to assess if this fixes the problem. Another area to look at is the DTM that was used to develop the orthorectification of the imagery – partiuclarly its projection and if it was accurate enough to match the field work.

  6. Bill: Thank you for organizing this interesting round table. I provide GIS solutions to a couple of renewable energy (wind and solar) developers. I help them in the initial phases of project site selection and permitting. I recently attended the Solar Power International 2009 Conference held at Anaheim, CA. From few technical sessions and conversations I had with several renewable energy developers, I inferred that utilities definitely are inclined and/or willing to adopt smart grid opportunities. An increasing demand to accommodate renewable energy in utilities’ interconnection,sure, warrants a need for smart grid. But creating an awareness about power of GIS in smart grid through proper training and education is necessary. Also, I would like to hear few GIS applications of smart Grid,in detail, from you.

  7. Bill Meehan Bill Meehan says:

    Sentil. Thanks for your thoughful comments. To really do Smart Grid, utilities need to understand where their current electrical facilities are located and where the new smart grid facilities are located, so that they can manage both the core electrical infrastructure as well as the related communications infrastructure. GIS provides the means to do both using geography as the common reference. In addition, GIS will be a common tool for managing the roll out of Smart Grid, particularly Smart Meters (AMI). Finding the right location for cell relays for example, is a spatial application. For companies that have received government funding, GIS will be a common tool for showing the progress of the rollout. GIS is a great tool for fleet routing – so as utilities roll out their smart meters, logitics will be an important GIS application.

  8. Thank you, Bill. You have precisely presented a comprehensive role of GIS in smart grid, majority being concentrated during roll out. Visualizing a big picture of electrical infrastructure and smart grid, I would be interested to, also, follow how Geospatial technologies will merge in after roll out; in particular for risk mitigation & alerts. Additionally, am curious (wouldn’t be surprised) if ESRI and/or any other players like GE will come out with a comprehensive, customized industry solution targeted towards Smart Grid, in the near future.

  9. Bill Meehan Bill Meehan says:

    Hi Sentil. We are planning very soon for additional resources on our resources web page that will address specific electric and communications issues, some particular to smart grid. In addition our business partners continue to provide smart grid solutions based in part at least on ESRI technology. As I have stated in a number of articles and papers, GIS is critical to the successful deployment of Smart Grid, so it’s very important that the GIS be complete, timely and supported by good work flows and architecture. We recently completed a survey called “Is your GIS Smart Grid Ready” Over 200 utilities responded to the survey. We will be publishing the results later this year. Utilities will get customized reports showing exactly where they stand in relationship to their peers. It should be interesting. Stay tuned. So utilities will need to really focus on their GIS to be successful in their Smart Grid deployments.

  10. Jim Kivela says:

    Hi Bill, what are your thoughts on where GIS fits in once a utility has its Smart Grid components operating? It seems like data from AMI, OMS & SCADA etc. will (or at least should) converge to provide a picture of the status/health of the network. GIS seemes like a logical place to display/visualize this data. Do you think that GIS technology as it currently stands can handle the volume of data that this would involve? Thanks.

  11. Bill Meehan Bill Meehan says:

    Hi Jim. Great question. I see the GIS as providing the ideal platform for bringing together information from a variety of sources, like from the meter management system, SCADA, sensor network, not so much as a repository of the information but as a way to visualize what’s going on right now, to be able to analyze the information from a spactial perspective (like show me where AMI meters are reporting a large number of momentary outages in relationship to recent tree trimming activities or recent weather issues). GIS can easly consume a variety of services (in the form of web services, for example) from many internal and external sources, including imagery to help utilities see patterns that only a spatial view can show. Later this year, we will be releasing a new electric utility template that will illustrate these concepts. So GIS is the right place to mash the information, create the analysis, view what’s going on in the field and provide a visual context for decision making. The new web tools coupled with our new Server products makes this possible.

  12. Jim Kivela says:

    What you illustrated is pretty much what I was envisioning. It seems like the key will be for the different vendors in the SG sector to agree to standards for data and communications. It almost seems like they need to form some sort of OGC-like organization for SG so that there can be the interoperability that’s needed. Then we will really be able to visualize the network like you described. Additionally, the cybersecurity aspect needs to be front and center. Unfortunately in most SG discussions it’s a secondary subject at best.

  13. Chuck Drinnan says:

    Maximizing the Smart Grid and Stimulus Opportunities with GIS

    The DOE has announced the companies who will receive stimulus money to implement new Smart Grid initiatives. GIS has important roles to play in the hundreds of new Smart Grid projects. If GIS professionals, users and developers in utilities and vendors, don’t provide some framework and standards for these projects, utilities will spend significant resources and time developing unique requirements, procedures, data base models, and applications. Without shared database models, each utility will define its own models and develop applications dependent on the specific data models. These components will be designed and implemented over and over. Each one will cost more to develop, more to maintain, and may be unable to provide the data to automate the emerging new best practices, applications, and procedures.

    Those of us that have been in the GIS industry for decades know what will happen if the utilities and vendors don’t work together to develop baseline requirements, procedures, database models and applications. Without standards and frameworks each application will require significant customization for each utility. Some utilities will not define the network models well and will not capture all the required data. As standard network connectivity and Smart Grid applications are developed, these utilities will have to make structural changes and capture more data to use the applications.

    Most utilities have struggled to capture and maintain their existing hierarchical electric network models. With Smart Grid, micro grids and distributed generation make many of these existing models obsolete. When AMI is added to the electrical facilities, the utility has two models — the now more complicated power model and the new communication and meter (AMI) model. These two models meet at the customer and may have other common facilities.

    What happens when an outage occurs. If the power network is well defined and the AMI network is operating properly the grid may be able to heal itself by automatically isolating the failure and re-configuring the network. To maintain the “healed” network and assure utility personell safety, the outage system and the GIS must update their networks either automatically or manually. As the outage is fixed switching orders are required to return the network to its design state.

    What happens when the AMI network fails or both the AMI and power networks fail? The staff in the field will require a spatial representation of both networks. They will have to determine which model has failed and how to fix the failed facilities.

    The time to build the new GIS database is not after the Smart Grid has been installed. If the GIS is part of the design and implementation of the Smart Grid, the GIS will support the design, provide the construction drawings, and perform the data capture as part of the build process. This reduces the cost of design, construction, and record keeping. It also provides a current view of the planned and implemented facilities to answer customer questions without additional field visits.

    The time to start is now. We need standard data models as soon as possible for design, construction, and record keeping. Note: For many utilities a standard data model may require some tweaking to capture utility specific data. However, if the structure remains the same and the important data is captured in the same format and content, customizing applications is a lot easier.

    Standard definitions of the new power and AMI network models are fundamental to assure the new outage and Smart Grid capabilities are available as the implementation proceeds. Schematic network representations should be developed to make the day to day operations easier.

  14. Bill Meehan Bill Meehan says:

    Chuck, well stated. In my initial post, I talked about how much Smart Grid was going to do for state of the electric system, but as Chuck and others have pointed out, the increased complexities will undoubtedly result in new problems. Old problems fixed, new ones created. Standards will be critical. OGC is involved in Smart Grid GIS standards. They have had a number of meetings and discussions so far. See Of course the IEC is working on standards for general network data interoperability using the Common Information Model (CIM). NIST is pushing Smart Grid standards as well. ESRI itself facilitates the creation of user driven freely available data models. Of course, these data models are only templates, not standards. So yes Chuck, lots of work to do here.

  15. Bill Meehan Bill Meehan says:

    Follow me on twitter. bmeehan52. A concern I raised in the original post is about the health of the “traditional” electrical network. Given the amount of money being invested in Smart Grid, I worry that investments in upgrading of the electrical delivery system will slip. ASCE in the 2009 Report Card on infrastructure rated Energy a D+. So it’s no secret that America’s electrical delivery system is aging and in need of significant upgrading. If we assume that Smart Grid technologies will take several years to implement and much of the capital money will go there (even with DOE’s grants – which are matched by utilities) it is possible that the system will just get that much older. While Smart Grid will do a lot to improve the reliability and availability of the system, it will not prevent equipment failure (beyone warning of failure), it will not prevent storms from knocking down overhead lines or prevent ancient underground cables from failing. So, I worry that we need to make sure that the part of the Smart Grid that actually delivers the power is upgraded and maintained properly. GIS can of course, help in the analysis of where the electric system is most vulnerable and of course, help to prioritze where work is needed most. Comments?

  16. On the economics of smart grid, would you consider the economic benefits of legislation for the adoption of hybrid and community energy systems, carbon pricing or cap & trade, coupled with the purchase of clean energy from Canada by the United States. Please view these links for pertinent documentation.

    We are interested in smart grid development, with the participation of all provincial stakeholders in New Brunswick, Canada. Our 2010 workplan is focussed on bringing municipal, provincial, federal and private sector partners, in order to facilitate dialogue toward smart grid and community energy systems. We have deployed an ESRI ArcGIS Server to maintain base layers for our climate change education projects. We also work with 10 Canadian Hubs across Canada and would like to expand our capacity to support OGC-compliant application + services in support of national greenhouse gas mitigation programs, as well as climate impacts adaptation programs.

    We recently spoke with the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy, North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, Provincial Climate Change Hubs, and provincial stakeholders (utilities, municipal and provincial governments, academic and community groups) about the need to educate decision-makers on the opportunities for smart grid, energy efficiency, integrated community energy systems, inventorying of assets, measuring energy and emissions data, as well as modeling trends over time and space. This would also encompass fuel-efficient fleet management, electric and smart transportation systems over time.

    I conducted a cross-border pandemic simulation / exercise with funding from USGS and GeoConnections, in 2007, where the database model and OGC-compliant services were developed based on user needs assessment, iterative design and alignment with pandemic priorities, ISO certified software development process, and demonstration during 2-day exercise with over 100 participants.

    I’d like to echo the statement by Chuck Drinnan: “The time to build the new GIS database is not after the Smart Grid has been installed. If the GIS is part of the design and implementation of the Smart Grid, the GIS will support the design, provide the construction drawings, and perform the data capture as part of the build process. This reduces the cost of design, construction, and record keeping. It also provides a current view of the planned and implemented facilities to answer customer questions without additional field visits. The time to start is now.”

    I agree with the comment, and thanks for the link from Bill Meehan: “OGC is involved in Smart Grid GIS standards. They have had a number of meetings and discussions so far. See Of course the IEC is working on standards for general network data interoperability using the Common Information Model (CIM). NIST is pushing Smart Grid standards as well. ESRI itself facilitates the creation of user driven freely available data models. Of course, these data models are only templates, not standards. So yes Chuck, lots of work to do here.”

  17. Bill Meehan Bill Meehan says:

    Thanks Eddie for those useful links and great commentary. We agree wholeheartedly. One thing we as a GIS community needs to do is to look at how are data models and messaging strategy conform to the interoperability standards being proposed and those developed. NIST is proposing merging several standards such as the multispeak, IEC 61850, CIM and others. We will need to pay close attention to those activities and follow what is being developed. Thanks again for your comments.

  18. Chuck Drinnan says:

    As I read through this site again – particularly Jim Kivela, Eddie Oldfield, and Bill’s replies – I think we need to think about how some of the mashed data is displayed. Most of us GISers always think in terms of maps but maps are often not an ideal way to view electrical networks that traverse convoluted paths.

    Don’t get me wrong the network should be defined and maintained in a GIS as the industry has finally recognized (for the most part). However, the result of the connected network in a spatial database is often more useful displayed in a schematic format where the context for changes is the network and not the locations on a map of the network changes.

    However the schematics produced today do not have the “real estate” for critical new information or a way of organizing the new data effectively. These schematics also do not present internal networks well (micro grids).
    The designers and systems that solve these problem in an elegant manner that enables understanding of the network are likely to dominate the SG market as far as spatial and network databases are concerned.

    GIS systems should work on this problem now so that they become the system of choice for viewing and managing the networks in a SG environment. It sounds like a very interesting problem.
    Thanks for triggering the ideas.

  19. Andy Zetlan says:

    Excellent comments.

    I am Andy Zetlan, and I am the Smart Grid Executive at Telvent, and am delighted to join you in this discussion, and hope that I can add to the conversation.

    I am on twitter at “andyzetlan” where you can follow me if you continue to be interested in Smart Grid Solutions and the intersection with GIS.

    Smart Grid Solutions must have a mathematical model of the electricity grid to complete the Smart Grid analysis and benefits that all countries are seeking: enhanced demand response functionality, improved reliability, customer involvement, and environmental sustainability. Many solutions now available in the marketplace are not GIS-based – instead they require the creation of that mathematical model in a manner that utilities have done for many decades – manually.

    This older approach works, but does not take advantage of the ability of a spatial database to create and maintain the network model. Understanding this, Telvent uniquely works with ESRI to build the network model for analytics, taking advantage of the functionality of ArcGIS to proide the topology and locational details needed.

    As Chuck mentioned in his strong posting, the creation of the spatial model provides the basis for real-time and off-line analytics of the grid. The largest individual software application that utilities use, the Distribution Management System (DMS) can create and maintain this spatial data model much more effectively.

    Utilities that use GIS as the basis of their electricity analytics also are able to present the analytics in geographic format, which has been pointed out by several people in this posting to have a wide variety of benefits.

    GIS is the foundation for running electricity networks, and Smart Grid solutions must have spatial data in their foundations to work well for all stakeholders in the electricity provisioning process.