Author Archives: Bill Meehan
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?”
Pop quiz! What’s the difference between a paper GIS and a digital GIS display?
“You can fold the paper plot, but you can’t fold the display.” That’s the most common answer. That’s also the problem.
Many people still view GIS displays as less convenient ways to see GIS plots. When I worked for a power company, we built special cabinets in the dispatch center just to hold our medium-voltage operating map sheets. That’s because we’d plotted our sheets on nonstandard sizes, so the standard file cabinets didn’t work. When we converted from our old, hand-drawn operating maps to GIS maps, we just plotted the new map sheets to look exactly like the old ones. And we plotted them on the same size paper as the old paper maps. Why? So they could fit in our custom file cabinets. If we could have recreated coffee stains on the GIS plots, we would have. Everything—the symbols, annotation, line weights, and of course plot sizes—were the same on the new as on the old map sheets.
Our underlying basemap grid was also a throwback to some arbitrary system from early in the previous century. Change it? Get out of town! Continue reading
Today, ArcGIS is more than a software product. It is a platform that takes advantage of organizations’ huge information inventories.
Platforms have changed the way society shares information, communicates, and collaborates. From Amazon to Apple, a variety of platforms on our devices remember who we are and call up the information we need to get the most out of our time. We move seamlessly from desktops, web browsers, tablets, and smartphones. Wouldn’t it be great if our professional platforms worked so smoothly?
The ArcGIS platform has three parts: Continue reading
Enhancing internal and external collaboration with the ArcGIS platform.
In the novel You Can’t Go Home Again, mid-20th-century American author Thomas Wolfe fictionalizes his hometown. Wolfe’s main character gets into trouble, angering the townsfolk of his hometown. I can relate.
I grew up in a blue-collar city, where the main claim to fame was that at one time it was the most densely populated city in the United States. That meant packed houses and city streets. You could say that I grew up on the streets of this very crowed city. Shortly after marrying and having a child, my wife and I moved to the suburbs. Later, my career became running electric operations for the power company that covered my old home town.
About 15 years ago, my hometown City Council invited me as a special guest at the chamber. Residents packed the public session; I felt certain at least a few might have gone to high school with me.
The residents weren’t happy. I felt like Wolfe’s character. Continue reading
To stay profitable and transform business, utilities must break with old habits.
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.