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GIS Is the Foundation for Grid Modernization

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The US Department of Energy (DOE) created the Grid Modernization Initiative (GMI) just a few years ago. In its GMI 2018 report, DOE stated:

"Our extensive, reliable power grid has fueled the nation's growth since the early 1900s; however, the grid we have today does not have the attributes necessary to meet the demands of the 21st century and beyond."

The DOE further stated that a modern grid must have the following:

  • Greater resilience to hazards of all types
  • Improved reliability for everyday operations
  • Enhanced security from an increasing and evolving number of threats
  • Additional affordability to maintain our economic prosperity
  • Superior flexibility to respond to the variability and uncertainty of conditions at one or more time scales, including a range of energy futures 
  • Increased sustainability through energy-efficient and renewable resources

These attributes form the basis for the DOE's GMI.

What's the Difference between Grid Modernization and Smart Grid?

The US government first defined Smart Grid in Title X111 of the Energy and Security Independence Act of 2007. The Act characterizes the Smart Grid as achieving the following:

(1) Increased use of digital information and controls technology to improve reliability, security, and efficiency of the electric grid.

(2) Dynamic optimization of grid operations and resources, with full cyber-security.

(3) Deployment and integration of distributed resources and generation, including renewable resources.

(4) Development and incorporation of demand response, demand-side resources, and energy-efficiency resources.

(5) Deployment of "smart" technologies (real-time, automated, interactive technologies that optimize the physical operation of appliances and consumer devices) for metering, communications concerning grid operations and status, and distribution automation.

(6) Integration of "smart'' appliances and consumer devices.

(7) Deployment and integration of advanced electricity storage and peak-shaving technologies, including plug-in electric and hybrid electric vehicles, and thermal-storage air conditioning.

(8) Provision to consumers of timely information and control options.

(9) Development of standards for communication and interoperability of appliances and equipment connected to the electric grid, including the infrastructure serving the grid.

(10) Identification and lowering of unreasonable or unnecessary barriers to adoption of smart grid technologies, practices, and services.

The smart grid in 2007 looks a lot like grid modernization in 2018.

Since 2007, US utilities have installed over 70 million smart meters (source: US Energy Information Administration [EIA]). Many utilities are adding advanced distribution management systems (ADMS). Deployment of distributed energy resources (DERs) has skyrocketed. Energy storage is increasing. Sales of electric cars are growing. New technologies such as phasor measurement units (PMU) on transmission systems are commonplace. Utilities are adding micro PMUs to the electric distribution system. Wi-Fi is widespread. Fiber-optic cables are everywhere.

Little did the framers of the 2007 Act know about the advancements in sensor technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics, geospatial analysis, the cloud, web services, or the proliferation of mobile devices.

The difference between smart grid and grid modernization is the technology. Grid modernization is now in place to make smart grid more of a reality beyond advanced meeting infrastructure (AMI) and ADMS. The advancement in technology since 2007 is nothing short of stunning.

Grid modernization also adds the notion of physical resiliency.

Why GIS Is the Foundation for Grid Modernization

Grid modernization relies heavily on a comprehensive understanding of the physical aspects of the grid. It needs to understand the behavior and the vulnerabilities of the grid. Geographic information system (GIS) technology provides the means to model the grid in detail. It can provide real-time situational awareness by bringing in web services, such as weather, fire, crew location, and social media data. GIS is expert at analysis helping utilities understand the past, present, and future behavior of the system. GIS has evolved from a mapping application to a location platform.

GIS provides the fundamental attributes of the grid, today and tomorrow. It is a comprehensive system of record of all things about the grid. It captures what and where they are. Most GISs in place now were designed with work and asset management in mind. These design principles have worked well to get utilities to the point they needed to be at that time. However, the changes in the industry will require new and higher-fidelity data to integrate and operate the systems of tomorrow, more specifically, getting to the integration needs of ADMS, SCADA, meter data management, distributed energy management systems, and network analysis systems.

GIS is a system of engagement. It communicates information throughout the utilities, retailers, generators, and the community. This gets information into the hands of all workers, regardless of location, designed to enable better decisions at the time needed. It involves reducing restoration; minimizing truck rolls; and facilitating better communication, collaboration, and coordination both within the companies and the other stakeholders in the community.

GIS is a system of insight, helping utilities, customers, regulators, and developers understand the impact of their grid modernization efforts. Predications are good but knowing where things might happen is important to run a high-performance utility of the future.

GIS is also a system for the IoT. Utilities can see the business as it operates in real time, geospatially. This will be common and the most effective way to collaborate and drive response to business and operational needs.

Finally, it is a system for developers. It is an open, extensive, and interoperable way to enable corporate IT or integration partners to extend the reach of the powerful information across the business.

According to the DOE, the grid must be resilient, reliable, secure, affordable, flexible, and sustainable. GIS provides the technology to help utilities understand how to evolve the grid from where it is today to where it needs to be. It can partner with other IT and operational technologies in a very elegant way.


GIS provides answers to the basic question of where is the network at risk. GIS shows the relationship of its assets to each other. It understands the relationship of networks with its surroundings. Consequently, it is essential for restoration, storm tracking, and security monitoring. Leveraging real time, machine learning, big data, and analytics, GIS gives utilities the answers they need to harden the grid in the most vulnerable areas.


GIS visualizes the grid and its relationships with the things around it. GIS monitors the health of the grid. It can show sensors that have failed to report results in the last hour. It can show physical and network relationships. GIS creates a real-time view of the grid. It can note where things are changing. In effect, GIS shows the complete state of the grid, represented by a realistic model in a way that people understand.


One of the greatest threats today to the grid is cyber and physical attacks. The good news is that devices, from large transformers to the tiniest sensors, are all becoming smarter. They can communicate their health. The bad news is that these very same devices become targets for cyber attack. No single system is as effective as GIS to assess the relationship of these devices to other aspects of the grid. GIS knows where every sensor is located and what it should be seeing.


GIS determines the best locations for components. It uses spatial analysis. Utilities need analysis to figure out the right location for its devices. GIS provides a spatial context to the analytics and metrics of grid modernization. GIS saves time and money.


A modern GIS platform is flexible. It is available on any device (desktop, mobile, web, tablets). For example, Esri built its new ArcGIS Utility Network Management extension using a flexible services architecture. Users can work anywhere, whether connected to or disconnected from the network. The information can be shared with other utility IT and OT platforms.


The GIS platform supports renewable resources. Other industries have used GIS for land management, solar density, wind density, and geothermal analysis. It is critical that utilities carefully model the location and attribution of all DERs. In the very near future, utilities and other entities will model DER financial transactions using technologies such as that of Blockchain. GIS is the tool to help in the modeling and visualization of this new utility business model.

GIS for Grid Modernization

GIS helps roll out grid modernization technologies. Using GIS, utilities can monitor construction progress. They can route crews in the most efficient way. GIS helps with analysis by identifying the best location for repeaters, sensors, PMUs, and new communication backbones.

The grid is evolving quickly in three areas—regulatory, technology, and business model. As the DOE stated, ". . . the grid we have today does not have the attributes necessary to meet the demands of the 21st century and beyond." As we evolve the grid of today into the one of tomorrow, GIS provides a system of record, system of engagement, and system of insight.

For more information on how GIS supports grid modernization, click here.

Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.
Bill Meehan's picture
Thank Bill for the Post!
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Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Jan 19, 2019

Thanks for your kind words. For information on how GIS is the foundation for Grid Modernization see Also, stop by our booth 11233 at DistribuTECH and check out the latest in Utility Network Management. 

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