GIS Helps Improve Gas Utility Operations

September 2010 Vol. 237 No. 9

Danny Petrecca, Manager of Sales Engineering, Telvent

Geospatial information system (GIS) technology is a shared network model and detailed asset repository that plays a major role in helping utilities create systems that meet the growing and changing needs of customers. Instead of viewing company information in a one-level perspective of data points and symbol numbers, GIS allows energy companies to view information in advanced geographical maps, providing a more holistic and graphical view of infrastructure and assets.

If utilized as an enterprise system, GIS technology can support and improve all levels of operations, including asset management, planning and analysis, field and design mobility, and operational awareness.

Because it can support all levels of operations, GIS is often viewed as the backbone of an energy company’s asset database by utilizing advanced sensing, communication and control technologies to distribute energy more effectively, economically and securely. Gas and electric utilities around the world are converting from older data systems such as CAD or homegrown information systems to GIS in order to gain significant cost reduction through simplified planning, analysis and improved operational response times. In other cases, energy companies that long ago implemented GIS technology are looking to update their systems to more advanced GIS solutions to guide future initiatives.

One such company, Northwest Natural (NW Natural) builds, maintains and operates the local natural gas distribution system for customers in Oregon and southwest Washington. NW Natural had been using a highly customized CAD system since 1983. Based on the ESRI ArcGIS® platform, the industry leader in geospatial technology, the gas company began creating custom programs for data management, asset management and planning to handle day-to-day processes. Although the company could be viewed as a pioneer in utilizing technology to improve its operations, the system became more difficult to maintain after decades of custom programming.

During the past decade, the gas company has experienced impressive growth, exceeding the national average for local distribution companies. But with the company’s rapid growth and limited IT support, NW Natural needed to begin thinking about updating their in-house developed applications for an advanced, industry-standard GIS solution that could work more efficiently and require less IT support.

“Although we valued our customized GIS system and its benefits to our utility, it got to the point where our IT support was using 90% of their time maintaining all of our custom-built programs and tool sets,” said David Blan, GIS supervisor at NW Natural.

In order to make better use of its data models and improve the efficiency of its IT staff, NW Natural wanted an updated system that deployed more “out-of-the-box configurations” and industry standard programming environments. NW Natural contracted with provider Telvent to implement its ArcFM™ Enterprise GIS solution. ArcFM is based on ESRI’s ArcGIS technology and is specifically designed for energy companies, enabling improved modeling, design and infrastructure management. It also allowed NW Natural to move toward a standard data model and application and away from the homegrown model it had relied on previously.

With an updated GIS system in place, NW Natural is able to continue to improve operational efficiencies and plan for future software integrations, such as GIS-based design tools for more accurate construction and engineering projects.

Other companies are implementing GIS technology and integrating a number of additional software solutions to increase efficiencies, reduce labor costs and more effectively respond to energy demands. Some of the most common GIS-based integrations include customer information, work management, distribution management, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

Next Level GIS
CenterPoint Energy is headquartered in Houston and is composed of an electric transmission and distribution utility, local natural gas distribution businesses, competitive natural gas sales and service business, interstate pipeline operations and a field services business with natural gas gathering operations. With ongoing gas construction, maintenance and repair projects occurring in numerous areas across six states, CenterPoint needed a consistent and uniform approach to creating project designs that could be reviewed by multiple engineers in various locations to increase efficiencies in the planning and work process.

Although CenterPoint had been utilizing a GIS solution for asset management since 1999, it sought to integrate its GIS technology into a more common design tool to standardize its design process across each of its multiregional service territories. With a singular design protocol utilized by all engineers and eliminating design inconsistencies, CenterPoint would be able to more effectively allocate its staff to assist with projects occurring in other service territories.

CenterPoint partnered with Telvent as an early adopter of Telvent’s latest design solution that would standardize its design methods for each of its gas areas, compiled within eight different geo-databases. To meet these needs, Telvent delivered Designer Express, which allowed CenterPoint engineers to access data in each of the utility’s eight geo-databases to enhance work sketches with GIS information and include additional design factors like construction materials and labor costs.

Once a design has been created, designers can add further construction details, print a construction packet and create material lists. When the job is complete, the designer utilizes Work Flow Manager to simply assign the design to the ArcFM GIS editing group to complete the as-built process, taking the responsibility for data management off the designers themselves. By providing the design information in one standardized, digital format, project information does not need to be redrawn or re-entered into additional information systems and reduces the likelihood of duplications, redundancies or human error.

With the GIS-based design solution, CenterPoint is able to more effectively communicate new construction and maintenance of existing assets. In addition, by having a single code base that works across all regional databases, CenterPoint is now able to utilize its development resources much more efficiently.

Because all CenterPoint gas designers now use a common design tool, the company can save on design labor costs by more easily allocating work to employees in different parts of the country. For example, although there are fewer construction projects in Minnesota during the winter, an engineer in Minneapolis can continue to complete designs for the Houston region by simply logging into the database and accessing the designs located in Texas. The project design can then be completed from the engineer’s office in Minnesota.

“It’s just the beginning of additional efficiencies that can be realized from having a consistent product and process that leverages GIS capabilities,” said Cindi Salas, director, Land and Field Services at CenterPoint Energy.

As utilities continue to evolve, the dependence on more effective data management will become even more vital. GIS technology offers viable solutions for utilities to improve its operations through better data quality, reduced labor costs and faster operational response times. As the energy industry becomes increasingly complex with the integration of more technology, utilities need to evaluate their data management needs to ensure they are prepared to compete in the modern era.

Author
Daniel M. Petrecca
is manager of sales engineering at Telvent and provides support for services and products designed for gas distribution companies, including Enterprise GIS, real-time information technology, planning and analysis and other IT solutions. He can be contacted at Danny.Petrecca@telvent.com.