Author Archives: Bill Meehan
Several years ago, Esri standardized the naming convention for its industry user conferences. For years, the name of the Electric and Gas User Group event was the EGUG Conference. Rather than use the name EGUG, we came up with Esri Electric and Gas GIS Conference or EEGGC. A couple of years ago, we were helping Jack Dangermond — founder, president and owner of Esri — with the video welcome to the EEGCC. We reminded him several times the conference name was now EEGGC and not EGUG.
It didn’t matter.
Dangermond proudly stated, Welcome to EGUG! So much for standardization. The good news is that the name EGUG is officially back, but with a slight twist. We are creating something new, an overarching event that includes EGUG and for the first time the Telecommunication User Group (TelUG). We are calling the event GeoConX hence EGUG @ GeoConX and TelUG @ GeoConX.
GIS Increases Awareness
There is a significant shift in how electric utilities use geographic information system (GIS) technology. In the old days and maybe even now, utility staff thought GIS was a system that automates the mapping process. And yes, it could also provide good information to other critical systems, such as outage management systems (OMS) or distribution management systems (DMS). Advanced utilities even used GIS to help in the design and construction of their facilities. That’s all great.
Smashing Information Silos and Connecting People with the Data They Need
When I worked for the power company, I liked to ride around town with my colleague Paul.
Paul was a troubleshooter, an on-call worker who hung out in his bucket truck, waiting for something to go wrong on the grid. While the job may sound like a cakewalk, troubleshooters were almost always busy. Once someone reported a problem, Paul would get a call from the dispatcher and then race to the location of a power failure. He would quickly locate where the failure occurred; radio in an assessment of the damage; and, if possible, fix the problem.
Many of the issues troubleshooters encountered were caused by tree limbs falling on the exposed lines, causing a short circuit and blowing a fuse. Another common problem occurred when unwitting squirrels would use the power lines as a convenient path from one source of nuts to another. (The squirrels usually didn’t make it.) Each time, Paul would uncover the burned tree limb on the ground, or find the fried squirrel, then figure out which fuse blew and replace it. Problem solved in most cases. Continue reading
Pairing Brains and Brawn to Power Tomorrow’s Cities
I attended one of the worst junior high schools in the Greater Boston area. It stood for 100 years, pumping out students who were mostly ill-equipped to handle the rigors of high school. There were two types of kids there: the tough kids and the smart kids.
The tough kids were the sons and daughters of gangsters or future gangsters. Most had lingered at the junior-high level well beyond the minimum of three years. Not only were they tough, they were also pretty old and big for junior high school, which made things that much worse for the rest of us.
I was one of the smart kids. Sadly for me, smart kids bore the brunt of the tough kids’ harassment. Hardly a day went by when someone did not confiscate my lunch money, knock my books out of my arms, or push me onto the weedy school yard blacktop. On particularly bad days, a tough kid would threaten to burn me with a cigarette. Summer vacation was like a reprieve from prison. Of course, the smart kids got their revenge later in life with good jobs, nice families, and houses in the suburbs. Most of the tough kids ended up spending their remaining days in the Cedar Junction or Norfolk prison. At least, that was my wish. Continue reading
Drive Business Value with the Three A’s of ArcGIS
Years ago, I worked at a power company for one of the most interesting people I can remember. Bob was brilliant, articulate—and paranoid. He didn’t trust anyone. He believed that many of the folks working for him were goofing off all the time. (Not me, of course!) He would even sneak around the city in the middle of the night to try to catch night shift crews in the act of not working.
Bob had a number of operations groups working for him. I ran one of those groups. He was also in charge of an administrative group that performed a variety of functions such as checking police detail invoices, preparing dispatcher reports, and filing circuit maps. Bob hated this group. He couldn’t understand why it even existed.
One day, Bob had had enough. He decided to simply blow up the department. All his managers—myself included—warned him that this was a risky move. We believed that if the group failed to exist, something bad was sure to happen. A critical report or regulation filing would go missing. We could get into trouble. Surely, this department was doing valuable work for the company. Continue reading
Managing the Three Ts of Electric Transmission with GIS
Where were you on August 14, 2003, at 4:00 p.m. (Eastern time)? That’s when much of the northeastern United States was blacked out. No power. Sweaty office workers stuck in elevators from Manhattan to Cleveland. Traffic signals dead everywhere. Tons of food spoiled. At the time, people were still wary from the September 11 attacks.
The culprit for disaster this time? Well, there were many. But two of them were rather skinny Ailanthus trees that had become a little too big for their britches.
The trees grew too close to the heavily loaded Stuart-Atlanta 345 kV transmission line, a major power corridor between the United States and Canada. When transmission lines carry a lot of power, their conductors sag. As fate would have it, at the worst possible time, the sagging lines came in contact with those two little trees. So the line tripped out. This was one in a series of cascading events—which created one of the largest power failures in the nation’s history. Continue reading
Utility Pros, Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge the Status Quo—the ArcGIS Platform Has Your Back
Twenty-five years ago, when I worked for a power company, I was the champion of the GIS project. As champion, I had a mission to get the most use out of the company’s investment in geospatial tools. We didn’t talk about GIS as a platform back then, but the idea was to share authoritative network data with everyone who could benefit from it. It was often a battle. Why? People were so used to using paper maps that anything different was frowned on by the field users. In fairness, they were concerned about safety. If one of their primary tools, like their operating maps, looked different, it might cause someone to be confused. Confusion, of course can, lead to accidents. Continue reading
An electricity manhole is a little room buried in the street or sidewalk and is where utility workers access electric cables, switches, and other dangerous stuff. (In the old days, the majority of workers were men, so the term “manhole” stuck.) When a cable fails, workers splice together new and old sections—inside these manholes. Workers enter the manhole through a round entry, usually covered by—you guessed it—a heavy manhole cover. Inside, manholes are hot, dangerous, and creepy. If a cable fails, it generates a lot of heat and sometimes fire. Any debris caught in the manhole will worsen the fire. And if things explode, those heavy manhole covers go flying.
To keep operations running smoothly, manholes should be inspected and cleaned of all debris. Continue reading
A brilliant electrical engineer approached me with a request. He asked if we could model a complex control system in electric substations with GIS. To better understand what he wanted to do, I asked what problem he was trying to solve. He described several. First, the control system took incorrect action when faced with a failure in the power system. What happened was the control system tripped out a larger section of the grid than was necessary. The engineer thought that modeling the control system in GIS could help diagnose and ultimately correct this problem. I told him this was possible, but it would be complicated.
He was overlooking major, obvious problems that carried big impact.
I tried to change the subject. I asked the engineer what was the biggest problem facing his company. He asked what I meant. What was the biggest problem from an engineering perspective? From another? I clarified. I meant, generally, what was his company’s biggest problem? He said bad data, poor engineering standards, budget cuts, inconsistent operating practices, and more. I pressed further. Finally, he said, “Well, 60 percent of our customers don’t pay their electric bills. Is that what you mean?” Continue reading
“The report of my death was highly exaggerated.”
It turns out Mark Twain never really said the quote like this. But that doesn’t really matter. The quote retains its meaning. For a utility professional like myself, Twain’s insight reminds me that though many are speculating on the impending demise of the electric utility, that death is highly exaggerated.
The Electric Utility Death Spiral Goes Like This
In the United States, we have a new trend. Customers are installing solar panels to beat the band. In most places, customers can sell excess electricity these panels generate to utilities—at the same price they buy electricity from these utilities. The controversial practice is called “net metering.” The question people are asking is, “Is this fair?”