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Implementing a GIS in an electrical utility: The growth pains
This paper takes a look at an implementation of GIS in a power company in Beirut, Lebanon. The paper discusses the difficult process of generating a database for the GIS and the fact that most of us hesitate to approach and confront this problem. The case study is chosen because the situation and circumstances under which the GIS was created are very similar to those here in India.
The Business of Energy
Let us look at the average day in an electric utility. There are engineers in the operations unit who are using a number of systems to monitor the current network load and demand as well as the current status of the generation units.
In the Fault Repair and Customer Service room, Engineers and service technicians along with telephone operators and maybe a dispatcher, record and process calls for help from across the city. Each call is located on a map. The dispatcher or an engineer may try to figure out if there is a pattern to the calls and see if any facilities are automatically being pointed out as the source of the problem by the calls. For instance, if all the calls originate on a single street, then any facility, say the wire, which connects them all or the common component in the next higher hierarchy will in all probability be the source.
The identification of the source automatically leads to which kind of service crew is required to solve the problem and whether such a crew is available, if yes send them in or else wait for the first such crew to become available.
The planning section has engineers who are finishing up the new plan for a new layout on the edge of the town and all that is left is to figure out whether the current main network can support the extension with or without modification.
This operation appears to be huge but the picture is distorted. To put things in perspective, consider the supply network. The supply network is a maze of wires, transformers and other components that spread out like tentacles from the generating station and connect to households and factories across the town (or the country, for that matter) via substations to regulate and alter voltage as required.
The Electricity provider has to ensure that the entire network is operational at all times, regulate connections, monitor their consumption for operations as well as billing purposes. Fortunately in India, Electricity has so far been an exclusively Government exercise, otherwise, if it were privatised and customers were given the choice of provider as in the US, the company also gets to monitor who un-subscribes from their services. The mammoth task is made much easier when every component of the maze (every line, pole, meter) is available and track-able in a digital database. It allows a user to attach information to each object in a table and refer to this table whenever required. It becomes even easier, if this digital database is a spatial digital database, or a Geographic Information System.
The introduction of a GIS allows the maze to be represented as it really is, to show where lines have been put up, which lines connect which customers as well as background information like plots, houses etc.
The Evolution of Enterprise GIS in Electric Utilities
In the early days, GIS used to be a project activity. One department in the utility would start by implementing a GIS and spend a lot of time and energy creating first of all a database. This would typically take up about 70 percent of the time and money. The database could then be used for a number of functions and suddenly, a lot of the jobs in that department would become much easier and faster to carry out. The other departments would then learn of the breakthrough and they would begin to implement their own systems which would be implemented with some dependence on the other departmentsí pre-created database and soon, most, even all departments would have their systems which would finally be connected so that information could be shared right across the organization. Suddenly, it would become possible for an engineer to create a plan and get an opinion from the operations or billing manager and see if they would face any problems in implementing a design. A finance person could track all new network components that were purchased and bring them up to show the auditor.
The Road to a GIS
You have seen the challenge of generating and supplying power to a city under normal circumstances, indeed some of the readers may even do it on a daily basis. We picked this case study because it talks about the one issue that GIS vendors fear to approach: Creating Data.
Most international case studies suffer from the fact that, they can get ready made, pre-cooked data sets and so the possibilities though real are unthinkable in the Indian context. This is where Beirut was different.
Electricite du Liban (EDL) generates, transports and distributed electricity to more than a million customers across the country. The country, however, is recovering from the effects of sixteen years of civil war.
Beirut, the capital of Lebanon took some of the worst pounding of the war and among the destruction were the distribution networks of EDL. To further aggravate the problems, the general difficulty in administration right after a war meant that illegal connections were rampant in the system.
In 1992, the war ended. EDL decided to implement a GIS. EDL decided to rebuild the entire nationís electricity network in a GIS. The project was called GISEL. GISEL would model the entire network and manage infrastructure.
EDL found that they had centuries old paper maps and records to begin with. The process of digitizing these was a painful uphill task, but someone had to do it. EDL worked with Khatib & Alami, the Beirut based ESRI distributors for Lebanon and decided to go ahead and make the effort.
Once they started, they realised that massive parts of the records were either erroneous or useless because the war had destroyed in the real world the networks that the records showed. So the digitization had to be supplemented with field work and remote sensing data.
The data was hard to create but it had to be done. This is the point that most of us fear when we approach a GIS. EDL had only two choices, either to go all the way and make the necessary effort or get stuck with a devastated network.
We have today, enough evidence that the implementation of a GIS is definitely beneficial (almost) irrespective of the amount of effort required to implement it. Most people in the developed and developing world who have made the effort have reaped the benefits, sooner rather than later.
We have to realise the same and get to work.
What We Need For Success
The database is critical to the success of a GIS. But the creation of the database requires a champion in the organization. The electricity provider will need one person who will firmly believe in the success of the GIS and keep pushing the data creation process.
There will be days when the most optimistic of the project team will wonder if what they are doing is worth anything and the Champion will convince them, it will be.
EDL and Khatib & Alami have finished the first phase of the project in which they have successfully mapped and integrated the network for Beirut Municipal. The next phase is the data creation effort for Greater Beirut. GISEL has gone on to become a shared resource with many other bodies concerned with Beirut beginning to use the system to their advantage.
Facilities managers at EDL now have programs that help them carry out new design exercises. The approval of any design is automatically added to the database.
Since some of the old equipment is damaged, parts of the old network can only operate at a percentage of the design load. GISELís Power Flow and Fault Analysis system allows EDL to study loads and faults in the system.
GISEL also helps EDL to locate and identify sections of the network where illegal connections are sapping power and to eliminate these connections. A simple comparison of billed versus actual power supplied is enough to tell EDL where to look for these connections.
Perhaps, most important of all, EDL has since helped many business and government organizations start their own Geographic Information Systems.
This paper really is more about the will to implement a GIS than about GIS in a power utility. Our discussions with potential users in the power sector have led to the usual data hurdle and we have seen the hesitation to cross the barrier stand in our way almost every time.
This paper shows that the threshold, though hard to cross is not impossible and that all it takes is one person who can push the organization up the hill and over it. Once the data gets created, the rest of the job is fairly easy.
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