Welcome Tom Helmer: New Expert in the Digital Utility Community - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]

Posted to Energy Central in the Digital Utility Group
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Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst, Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Aug 18, 2020

Each passing day, the utility industry is coming to embrace the inevitable transformation the sector will need to complete to become a digital utility. Integrating digital measures in new hardware, sensors, and software strategies will continue to be essential in the utility of tomorrow, but part of the lag in fully embracing the digital utility concept no doubt came from the heavy learning that would come with it. As a result, utilities are keen to turn to outside experts to help guide them in this journey.

One such expert on the future digital solutions that will continue to take hold in utilities is Tom Helmer, Executive Solution Architect at UDC. UDC is a spatially focused company that assists utilities embrace more automation, GIS, and other digital utility solutions. In his role with UDC, Tom brings 25 years of experience on technologies like GIS, advanced metering, and smart grid technologies, including expertise in both electric and gas utilities.

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Tom has also graciously accepted the role of becoming a member of Energy Central’s Network of Experts within our Digital Utility Group. Now that Tom will be available to provide his insights and answer community questions, getting introduced to him and his background will be valuable. As such, Tom agreed to participate in our Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’

Matt Chester: Can you start by just giving our readers the bigger picture—what brought you into the utility community, how did you get involved in the digital utility side of the industry, and what’s your role today?

Tom Helmer: I spent my first 10 years developing a command and control information system for NATO while working for Hughes Aircraft Company. In hindsight it was a real-time GIS system with sensors watching airplanes, ships, submarines and troop movements.  When I went over for OJT, the Berlin wall came down so it became more of a war gaming system than a command and control system.  Having built a GIS, I thought I would try my hand at consulting using GIS technology. 

I asked around it seemed like joining UGC at the time would be a good fit and UGC only dealt with utilities.  Along with GIS systems under my leadership we expanded to put in the complete energy delivery resource planning suite of technologies: WMS, MWM, DPS, OMS and I really enjoyed putting in the OT systems for utilities that leveraged my command center background from Hughes. 

We were bought and sold a few times over the years, but the core group from UGC stayed together and when we emerged as Enspiria Solutions, Inc is when I started to learn about the other digital components: AMI, MDMS, DRMS, SA, DA, DMS, DERMS and ADMS. I was lucky to learn from some of the industry leaders while we teamed on engagements with some of the early DMS adopters. I was on the team that put together the strawman design for NASPInet, which turned into the wide area projects that competed with the AMI projects for federal funding.  I learned quite a bit about synchro-phasors and the business use cases for integrating all of North America’s transmission substations.

Today I am UDC’s Executive Solution Architect and one of my current projects is helping a large utility merge four opcos which are made up of six utilities into using one ADMS and transitioning to one operating company with regional operating centers.  I’m the chief solution architect for the engagement’s prime system integrator.  This is quite an exciting project and I look forward to its next phase starting up in the fourth quarter of this year.


MC: Having worked extensively in the gas and the electric sides of utilities puts you in a unique position. Do you find that gas vs. electric is overall too siloed?

TH: We have experienced the gas silos firsthand over the last five years while trying to talk to the various gas compliance managers that exist at each gas utility.  We came up with a single enterprise GIS-based framework to drive all gas compliance preventative maintenance programs, compliance programs, surveys, inspections, and maintenance programs.  It’s been very tough to get all of the folks responsible for all of the mandated periodic compliance programs together in a meeting to see if they would find value of using the same paradigm and sharing the same enterprise GIS application to design, create, update, schedule, record in the field, monitor their daily progress, and to provide full reporting transparency with zero time required to prep for audits by their governing agencies from the same tool they used to plan and perform all of their compliance work.

MC: Are there lessons in one of those domains that could be better learned in the other?

TH: UDC has taken what we have learned from the electric outage operations and outage communications domain over the past 26 years and have brought that paradigm to the gas domain with our GIS-based Gas OMS.  It provides the gas utilities the ability to keep a digital twin of their gas pressure system in blue sky days which we think will have value in addition to its ability to manage a gas outage.  Unlike their electric counterparts, all gas outages get created and named manually by gas operators.  Our Gas OMS supports outage creation and the ability to automatically create and monitor all related required outage isolation and restoration tasks: valve isolation lists/pinch points, turn off meters, after repair is complete: gas up the repair, do leak survey and main purging, turn on meters and relight appliances.  While working an outage event, the gas utilities can now update the estimated restoration time at varies tasks along the way to keep their customers and executives well informed of their restoration process.


MC: The wealth of experiences you’ve had in different areas and aspects of the utility sector is rather impressive. Given your wide view of the industry, I’m curious if there’s any technology or innovation that you think is flying under the radar in terms of not getting the attention and excitement it deserves for the ways in which it will shape the future of the industry?

TH: It's not under the radar, but it has been on a very slow adoption rate and it is not getting enough attention it deserves: the need for an ADMS to manage and control the automation of the power grid as it grows to include substation IEDs, feeder IEDs, substation IED inside of switch cabinets on feeders, smart meters at customer locations, and bellwether meters along feeders.  All of these computers in the field need the ADMS’ centralized model driven optimizing suite of applications to monitor and control the grid based on the wealth of digital information available.  For the human to make sense of all the digital information available, ADMS applications like Intelligent Alarming will become necessary to turn the raw digital data into information.  The ADMS centralized applications like UBLF or Distribution State Estimation are needed to review and potentially override some the distributed peer-to-peer DA device operations to put the grid into a more optimal configuration.

The second piece of technology that should be thought about while adding all the new digital devices to the grid is how to best take advantage of the data these devices are monitoring and collecting on a continuous basis.  I refer to this as my Smart Grid Data Repository reference architecture.  Being able to mine all of this great digital data and combining it with the human condition collected information and the simulation forecasted information to be able to do advanced asset management not only at the device level, but now at the feeder level or at subsections of a given feeder.  This needs to include the historic: AMI data, SA data, DA data, ADMS generated data, SCADA data, weather data, forecasted utilizations, forecasted hosting capacities and forecasted reliability performance.  This set of digital data should cover operational data, health and wealth condition data, and waveform data including digital signatures that can be used to predict when a device will fail.  Putting in place the architecture to bring all of this data to an enterprise repository will enable the advanced asset management paradigms that need this information: condition-based maintenance, condition-based inspections, reliability centered maintenance and predicted failure based maintenance and replacement.


MC: The Energy Central community is all about creating connections and sharing value. So with that in mind, what value have you seen coming your way as you get more involved with the Energy Central community?

TH: Keeping current on new ways utilities are bringing digital solutions to their workflows, including the use of AR heads up displays, is so important. I appreciate learning from the Energy Central community about the advances of wireless technologies to provide high speed, high bandwidth, at guaranteed levels of service and how utilities can upgrade to these latest communication advances. Similarly, I’m eager to continue learning from the Energy Central community about the adoption of AI technology both in gas operations and in asset management for both gas and electric utilities.


MC: And for readers being introduced to you via this interview, what value do you hope to bring to them?

TH: I would hope to bring my enterprise GIS, ADMS, Substation Automation, Distribution Automation, AMI, MDMS, EAM, MWM, DPS, Operational Communications Systems, Emergency Preparedness Planning, and Customer Portal wealth of business value, technology capabilities and the relative high-value integrations between these power systems to our electric utility readership.

I would also hope to bring my Pipeline Safety Management System, Compliance Management, and Gas Operations technologies and integrations knowledge to our gas utility readership and to alert them of potential issues and to smooth out some of the bumps in the road as they embark on their initiatives.


MC: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you as you get welcomed into the community?

TH: I’m an avid fly fisherman and enjoy fishing on the low pressured tail waters coming out of my electric utility clients’ peaking dams.

I do enjoy downhill snow skiing and only have lost one client on the mountain in 28 years of consulting for utilities.

On a serious note, I’ve been helping folks get the most from their GIS investments by looking at all of the utility’s business areas: Customer Service, Rate Design, Engineering, Reliability Engineering, Integrity Management Engineering, Engineering Design, Field Construction As-builting, Operations, Field Ops, Repairs, Compliance Management, Inspection & Maintenance, Field I&M, Vegetation Management, and developing enterprise GIS applications that integrate GIS with their other business systems to better plan and monitor the work that needs to get done and use the native power of the GIS as data analytic and data marshalling tools that brings together current information from a wealth of systems about the power grid or gas pressure system and provides the current as-operating view (digital twin) to all utility employees both in the office and in the field using enterprise GIS.



Please join me in thanking Tom Helmer for his time in this interview and for his accepted role as a Digital Utility expert in the Energy Central community. When you see Tom engaging with content around Energy Central, be sure to say hi, ask a question, and make him feel welcome!

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interested in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.


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