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Welcome Ben Dwinal of UDC, New Expert in the Digital Utility Group- [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]

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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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  • Sep 15, 2021 11:45 am GMT
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The utility industry was built on the collection and distribution of energy—whether through electrons or physical fuel sources. The modern utility, though, has been digging into an auxiliary resource that’s proven just as valuable: data.

The collection of data—data on customer power use, on grid assets, on weather patterns, on financial markets, and so much more—has transformed the utility into a truly digital enterprise. As the grid continues to shift in that way towards the power sector of the future, we’re going to continue to rely upon the subject matter experts who are creating these changes. At Energy Central, we look to assemble these thought leaders in our official Network of Experts: seasoned utility veterans who aren’t just reporting on the changes, but ones who are driving the evolution through their daily work.

Today I’m happy to present the latest member of this network of experts, specific to the Digital Utility Group: Ben Dwinal, Solution Architect at UDC. Bringing with him over 24 years of experience in topics ranging from geospatial intelligence to application development and more, Ben promises to be an invaluable voice for fellow members of the Digital Utility Group.

To give an introduction to him and his experience that he’ll bring in that role, he agreed to do as a part of the Energy Central Power Perspectives ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series’:

Matt Chester: A lot of your work has to do with GIS, which is an area of growing importance and focus within the utility industry—though of course it’s not exclusive to utilities. Can you share a bit about how you see GIS coming to transform utilities? And what is there available for you to learn from other industries that can be used at utilities?

Ben Dwinal: One of the areas within utilities that I believe will transform significantly, and which will be no surprise, is the mobile and field workforce, how they operate. Obviously, there’s going to be a huge push in that area in the near future. Now, the interesting part is, the GIS capability in technology to support mobility and mobile field applications has been there for awhile. The problem observed at many utilities that I've worked with is that the staff is not a digitally oriented staff. Based on that experience, I believe it's been more of an adoption issue.

Of course, mobile device use is increasing, and as we see younger, more digitally oriented users that are coming into the workforce and making up a larger percentage of the field staff, there will be a much higher adoption rate of paperless workflows and getting into more geospatial intelligence of their fieldwork. I think of mobile capabilities like location-based services, and I associate it to spending time with my 13-year-old son or my 19-year-old daughter. They have the expectation that, at any point in time, no matter where they are, they know what's around them. And so, that familiarity and expectation for mobile technology enablement will bleed into the workforce. And we're already seeing it happen at many utilities.

We will start to see the concepts of edge computing bleed into the mobile workforce within utilities. To put that in perspective, with mobile computing, the biggest challenge that we face is storage. We can never store as much information as we want on the mobile device. To solve the storage issue, we look to concepts of edge computing. There's a lot of advances coming where utilities will be able to move some data out, based on where their field crew member is at, and keep that information up-to-date as the worker is moving around the system. That way, at any point in time, if we want to run spatial intelligence models based on crew location against the surrounding data and utility data, we're not having to make round trips back to the server. That model fully supports all of your common, utility-focused fieldwork. Because as we know, even though bandwidth has gotten better, whether you're in gas or electric, your crew may work where there's absolutely no connection to the server for hours, or for days. People may work and just have no bandwidth to make a round trip to the server. So, we have to be able to account for that. Those are a few specific areas where the advances in GIS over the next several years are going to start to show up in utility workflows.

 

MC: What are some of the major misconceptions or misunderstandings that you have to deal with regarding GIS, particularly when you’re trying to talk to a utility about how it can help them?

BD: From a system resources planning and capacity planning perspective, I would say the largest misconception that we deal with as GIS has become more mainstream, is among IT architects, managers, decision-makers. The initial belief is that GIS operates much the same way as an asset management system or a customer information system; that it's just simple tables with rows that you have to query and get responses back, and that's how it works. So, that's the largest misconception that we face around GIS - the idea that while it has a map, under the hood, it still operates the same way as a traditional database does. And that's not the case at all. Everything we do in GIS has a geometric component to it. That makes data transactions significantly more resource intensive than a standard database lookup on a table searching for a field value.

So as an architect, when we're designing the systems, we often face challenges and can experience a learning period with our client's IT staff. We typically lead our projects off by alerting our client that GIS operations are more intense. It's more visual, the rendering of components on your devices, the transfer of information is just significantly higher than most of your typical data store systems. It’s also persisting data, whether it's about customers or other data that you have, this is a significantly different element that they’ll be dealing with. So, this means that your utility’s network will take a harder hit, all your computing and memory will take a harder hit, your devices that your users typically use will have to be either enhanced or replaced.

 

MC: What about the future of GIS and the increased digitalization of the utility industry is most exciting to you? What about most concerning?

BD: The most exciting part of where we are right now is the volume of information available to utilities and the increasing ability to capture it at a very high rate. That is really one of the things that is going to change how we manage analysis. As we start to plug in more trend analysis and try to get ahead of the systems or ahead of the analysis that utilities typically were doing with data that was months old. We can now do it with data that is days or even hours old.

We can see how advances in real-time data capture are changing how utilities operate in a couple of different scenarios. First, the volume piece shows up from a field workforce or a human perspective. I was recently on a project with a large utility. They had been working in the field off of laptops and paper maps. When they noticed a vegetation encroachment or a hazard in the field, or an issue that needed to be reported, they could write it down or keep it on their laptop. And then, it would make its way back to the supervisors and the managers into the system and work orders were generated. But that takes time, and not everybody in the field workforce had a laptop or had the tools to make these collections.

With the typical member in the utility’s workforce having a phone, we helped them deploy a simple, mobile app and increased their 300 collectors out in the field to 1200 because everybody's got a phone and they can download this app very easily, and put in a digital hazard issue or incident. They can put in a digital vegetation encroachment, take a picture on their phone, and submit it. And so, that quickly we increased their data and information collectors within the company by many fold and significantly reduced the collection to mitigation time duration.

Secondly, increasing ability to use aerial and other human driven sensors mounted on vehicles to do rapid collection of very intense data is quite exciting. LIDAR is a technology that always comes to mind. Our ability to collect data at a very high rate has significantly increased and it's been a huge cost reduction because  the utility doesn’t need to hire a plane or helicopter to fly that pipeline for them anymore. They can now fly it very quickly with a drone. Another driver for LIDAR, system processing capacity has increased. Years ago, it would take months to process a collection of LIDAR. Now, if we take advantage of scalable compute nodes in the cloud, we can process very large amounts of LIDAR data and turn it into actionable analysis data for a decision-maker within days.

What’s most concerning about advancing data collection and processing technologies in relation to GIS, while we have the ability to scale compute like never before in the cloud, many of the GIS tool sets that utilities use to do spatial processing have not been able to keep up with that pace. We can scale compute nodes in the cloud, which is a huge, huge advantage to processing data quickly. Many of the tool sets and frameworks that we use are still single-threaded. They're not able to break apart a spatial operation into seven or eight different threads to allow us to do apply scaling at the compute level. They're still sequential in how they sift through spatial data.

The challenge going forward is that we need for the tool sets and the frameworks and all of the third-party tool sets that utilities use to process this data. We’ll need to make adjustments so that we can do that processing and take full advantage of all this additional volume of information, rapid collection, as well as ability to process it fast. That's the biggest challenge that I see for GIS users and service providers. We're going to be held up for several years unless we write our own spatial tool sets; we will be held up with our ability to do some of these quick turnaround collections and turn it into actionable data cycles. It's going to take some time to let the tool sets catch up.

 

MC: As an expert on Energy Central, we’re definitely looking forward to the insights you’re going to be able to bring. What should community members look forward to you bringing to the table as our newest expert?

BD: I'm hoping to bring a perspective that looks at new ways of taking advantage of geospatial intelligence for the utility community. I'm also very interested in the transition of utilities to more of a cloud-facing infrastructure. It's inevitable - they will all have to adapt to something in the cloud in the next couple of years. There's just no way around it. Software as a service, data processing as a service, capabilities as a service, are here to stay. It's just too cost-effective for most utilities to avoid. So, I'm hoping I can be a leader in that perspective in helping utilities understand there are very secure ways to transition some of your data, some of your systems, some of your capabilities, to a cloud environment. There's many ways that I can support members in understanding the patterns that we've used at other utilities to accomplish that. I'm hoping I can be on the forefront of technology and cloud systems, as well as the application of geospatial intelligence and location-based services within utilities and for the Energy Central community.

 

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Thanks again to Ben Dwinal for joining our Expert Network and sharing his time and experience with the community. As you see Ben engaging across Energy Central, be sure to share any comments or questions with him to tap into his wealth of knowledge!

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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