Digitised asset record combats aging infrastructure

May 5th, 2015, Published in Articles: PositionIT


This article examines how geographic information systems (GIS) can be used by electrical utilities to combat problems such as aging infrastructure and loss of system knowledge by enabling them to have an accurate understanding of their infrastructure and assets.

When we hear about someone marking their 80th or 90th birthday, there’s cause for celebration. But when we look at the advanced age of elements of the electrical grid, there’s cause for alarm and action. Additionally, the massive wave of retirements at utilities is cause for concern, because critical knowledge is lost as baby boomers exit their workplaces.

Fig. 1: Aging infrastructure has led to an increased incidence of weather-related power outages.

Fig. 1: Aging infrastructure has led to an increased incidence of weather-related power outages.

What should be done to address the dramatic impacts of an aging electric energy infrastructure and an aging utility workforce?

It’s crucial for utilities to create a detailed and accessible digital record of assets. This digital record is step one for a utility to be proactive and prepared for a variety of situations – from quickly recovering from outages caused by severe weather to taking grid hardening measures that increase resiliency.

Grid, workforce vulnerabilities

The US Department of Energy (DOE) estimates 70% of transmission lines are more than 25 years old and 60% of circuit breakers are more than 30 years old. In addition, the Galvin Electricity Institute estimates the average age of substation transformers is 42 years old, two years beyond the projected life span.

“The age of the grid’s components has contributed to an increased incidence of weather-related power outages,” according to an August 2013 report prepared by DOE and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

“The response time of grid operators to mechanical failures is constrained by a lack of automated sensors,” the report states. “Older transmission lines dissipate more energy than new ones, constraining supply during periods of high energy demand. And, grid deterioration increases the system’s vulnerability to severe weather given that the majority of the grid exists above ground.”

While this old infrastructure poses serious challenges, utilities are also trying to cope with the loss of system knowledge that’s stored in the minds of veteran employees.

As much as 50% of the nation’s utility workforce will retire in the next five to ten years, according to the US Department of Labor.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), in a major study released in December 2013, notes that workforce challenges extend beyond transferring critical knowledge to new employees. After surveying utilities, PwC documented that a talent gap has developed. There is a shortage of young people who are qualified to move into specific utility jobs. Equally troubling, there are utilities that are failing to retain some of the good talent they hired.

Building a digitised network

It’s common to find utilities using old, disparate data capture processes. Consequently, retirees are leaving with historical, in-depth knowledge that traditionally could only be obtained through years of on-the-job experience.

But that antiquated tradition can readily be replaced by implementing a geographic information system (GIS) that provides utilities with a digitised record of assets. This record is the foundation on which a modern utility is built since it ensures employees throughout the organisation have access to an up-to-date, accurate view of the network. They aren’t bound by the decades-old accumulation of maps and design drawings, which are often redundant and contain inaccurate data.

When a comprehensive digital record of assets is in place, it allows new and veteran employees to track, manage and analyse the network. Because of the depth and accuracy of the data, utilities have the capacity to recognise trends and patterns, and make better decisions about upgrading the infrastructure.

This type of high-quality intelligence helps utility workers harden the grid because it enables them to prioritise inspections and equipment replacements.

This digitisation approach is valuable for utility employees throughout the organisation, but is a particularly critical tool for new employees trying to gain an understanding of infrastructure and be ready for weaknesses in the grid that are vulnerable to storm outages.

Constructing a more resilient network

What does it mean to be a successful utility in the 21st century?

A well-functioning utility is prepared to deal with increasingly severe weather, a more engaged customer base and stiffer federal compliance standards. To achieve that performance expectation, it’s imperative for a utility to proactively identify weak areas of the network and take action to repair the trouble spots before they break.

To satisfy customers and regulators, utilities must prioritise grid hardening, which is the process of strengthening the electric grid to reduce vulnerabilities and allow quicker recovery when outages occur.

Greater resiliency begins with access to a digitised asset record compiled through GIS. Unless one understands all aspects of the network, it is virtually impossible for decision makers to identify what areas are most susceptible to failure. Once a digital record is established, the utility can be confident that front office management and field crews are seeing the same information and can begin to pinpoint weak areas throughout the network.

After those weak areas are brought into sharp focus, it’s possible to make smart decisions about prioritising network upgrades. Those improvements can include replacing old wooden poles with those made of a new, heavier material. Another effective strategy is moving assets underground that are currently located in high wind areas. Grid hardening can even include constructing a floodwall to protect the most important and vulnerable parts of the network from severe weather.

By tapping the accurate information in the GIS, a utility doesn’t have to guess what parts of the network are most in need of repair. It now has factual justification for making repair decisions and spending money. In addition, the detailed record of assets and repairs helps keep the utility in compliance with government regulations. Fines associated with FERC reliability standards can cost a utility up to $1-million per day per violation.

Enhancing operations through a unified OMP

In the United States, severe weather is the number one cause of power outages. The DOE reported that 87% of outages affecting 50 000 or more customers are caused by severe weather such as thunderstorms, hurricanes and blizzards.

“Grid resilience is increasingly important as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of severe weather,” according to a 2013 DOE report. “The aging nature of the grid – much of which was constructed over a period of more than 100 years – has made Americans more susceptible to outages caused by severe weather.”

As utilities prepare for greater frequency of severe weather events, it should be emphasised that weather forecasts can be integrated into GIS. This allows the utility to spotlight what infrastructure is vulnerable based on historical storm data. Additionally, as a storm approaches a weather-integrated GIS can help a utility determine which parts of the service area are in the path of a storm and can prepare crews to respond to potential outages. This type of intelligence allows a utility the ability to deploy ground crews in advance of the storm, so they can restore service more rapidly in the event of outages.

While resiliency is a top goal in the face of intense weather systems, utilities are also grappling with reliability challenges. Because of the old infrastructure, day-to-day failures are causing more frequent outages. Electric system capacity is an issue on a sunny day when there isn’t a threat of a violent thunderstorm or hurricane.

As the US population grows, electricity outages could simply become a way of life unless aging infrastructure is replaced. But that grim scenario can and should be minimised.

Implementing a detailed and unified outage management plan (OMP) increases the ability of utilities to better serve their customers. New and veteran utility employees are the winners in this case because nobody is faced with trying to understand the system based on a patchwork of old maps and design drawings.

Everybody has access to up-to-date data, so executive-level to entry-level personnel have a clear view of the network and understand exactly where the utility’s assets are located. This mode of operation is only possible through digitisation.

If a utility is operating in an information vacuum, it’s impossible to effectively deploy resources. Over-preparing can needlessly drive up costs, which are ultimately borne by customers. Meanwhile, a lack of preparation can result in increases in outages that could have been avoided, or longer restoration times.

Ultimately, a digitised record of the utility’s network is the only way to create an efficient OMP that ensures utilities are well-prepared for a major outage. Being prepared not only means the utility will be in the best position to serve customers, but it also helps maintain compliance and ensure that a utility can withstand an audit by regulators.

Superstorm Sandy knocked out power for 8,5-million customers when it hit in October 2012. The magnitude of that event brings into sharp relief why utilities cannot wait for network failures to occur and why they must shrewdly invest in network upgrades now.

Taking smart paths to address workforce, infrastructure issues

As baby boomer employees hand off responsibilities to younger generations, the electric energy industry is moving into a new era. Utilities that have successfully operated for decades will need to make several substantive changes to avoid being hobbled by old infrastructure and legacy knowledge leaving with retiring employees.

While many utilities are taking steps to replace outdated parts of the network and investing in a “smart grid”, the increase in severe weather events and government regulations may require that the pace of expenditures be accelerated.

This makes it all the more critical for a utility to have an accurate understanding of its network in the form of a GIS available to employees throughout the organisation. It is only through truly understanding its infrastructure and assets that a utility can be confident in making smart decisions to make it a successful utility of the future.

Contact Ntombi Mhangwani, Schneider Electric, Tel 011 254 6539,

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