Utility Asset Management—Digital Twin or Digital Octuplets

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
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Bill Meehan's picture
Director, Utility Solutions Esri

William (Bill) Meehan is the Director of Utility Solutions for Esri. He is responsible for business development and marketing Esri’s geospatial technology to global electric and gas utilities.A...

  • Member since 2002
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  • Mar 12, 2020

As I write this, my daughter is on the verge of giving birth to her first child. As far as we know, she is not having twins. But you never know. So the notion of digital twin came to my mind.

Some people call the geographic information system (GIS) a digital twin of the grid. It captures grid assets and their locations. It includes their attributes and some behavior. Yet most geographic information systems are incomplete—missing critical parts. Rarely does GIS model electrical substations. Hardly ever does it dive into power plants. It's incomplete, as confirmed by this recent survey.

The problem for many utilities is that GIS has many brothers and sisters that could claim also to model the grid. Take SCADA, for example. It simulates the real-time operation of the grid. How about the asset management system? It includes the maintenance history of every asset and has some of the same data that lives in the GIS. An advanced distribution management system (ADMS) has a model of the distribution network buried within its bowels. It, too, duplicates data in GIS. Even advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems model a part of the grid. Utilities maintain models of the grid in their analytics programs, such as load flow, stability and short-circuit analysis. In each of these instances, the twins are not identical—they look alike until you dig deeper.

The notion of a single source of the truth for a utility is a myth. There is no digital twin. There are eight. Probably more.

So what? Is that a problem? Yes. Having eight children at the same time creates chaos. Too many things happen at the same time. Having multiple, similar, but not identical versions of the grid nurtures inefficiencies. It promotes errors. It swells restoration time. It weakens asset management.

What's the answer? Rethink the role of GIS in four new ways:

GIS as a Portal to the Grid

Stop calling it the digital twin. The GIS is a natural place to consume data from its siblings—like SCADA, ADMS, short circuit, load flow, and work and asset management systems and even substation and power plant CAD systems. GIS organizes their data by location. To do that, the GIS must be a system of engagement, consuming data easily in real time. This is what Esri ArcGIS does, since it is based on the technology of web services. Just like social media. Think of GIS as the place where all the siblings gather. Pull data together—insight happens. Coordination flourishes. Communication thrives. Chaos fades.

GIS as a Precise and Complete System of Record

ArcGIS has been reformed to go well beyond a 2D mapping system. It is 3D enabled. Just like real life. It is a precise system of record for grid assets, their locations, and their relationship to each other and their surroundings. Other systems such as SCADA, ADMS, and work and asset management have different roles. They are about control, dispatch, outage management, measurement, and customer service. That's okay.

GIS must be a complete representation of the grid, from power plant to transmission to substations to customers. The latest network management technology provides precise network modeling of devices, structures, and their relationships. Does this mean that GIS replaces ADMS or load flow systems? No—it means the opposite. GIS needs to feed these systems to free up what they do best.

GIS as Something More than a Digital Version of a Paper Map

For decades, GIS for electric utilities has produced digital versions of hard-copy maps. The focus has been on cartography—the underlying theme has been for the GIS to automate the process of making maps, with all the characteristics of traditional mapmaking. That includes white space management, placement of labels, and annotation. Dumbing down the maps doesn't help, either. It just creates simplified versions of the data on mobile devices. It creates yet another brother or sister to add to the chaos. But the GIS remains an accurate model of the grid—not a paper map disguised as a digital file.

GIS as Being about Discovering Something New

GIS creates location intelligence. It uncovers patterns and reveals hidden issues. How? By consuming data from nearly any source. Within the utility. From the web. From other traffic, weather, lightning, and imagery services. It adds this to the precise and detailed asset model of the grid. Then—using artificial intelligence, spatial analysis, and machine learning—it discovers opportunities. And vulnerabilities. For better decision-making.

ArcGIS is better than a digital twin. It works cooperatively with all the other systems in the utility. It gives utilities the tools to improve data quality by enforcing rules for adding and consuming grid data.

Utilities have multiple representations of the grid. The GIS provides a means for bringing those disparate representations together. Think of having to manage eight children at once. That's what utilities must do sometimes. GIS brings order to that chaos.

For more information on how ArcGIS provides a system of record, of engagement, and of insight for better asset management download our free ebook.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 12, 2020

The problem for many utilities is that GIS has many brothers and sisters that could claim also to model the grid

How much of an issue is it when utilities see the investments in those brother and sisters as spent money they must utilize rather than seek out further investment in GIS? Or can the investment in those other programs be framed as a way where the sunk cost will ultimately be used and benefit the final ArcGIS integration?

Jim Horstman's picture
Jim Horstman on Mar 19, 2020

Matt, when utilities see the 'chaos' of the octuplets the spent money is not as much of an issue. As Bill points out the primary function of the brothers and sisters is not to maintain the network model but rather that is a matter of necessity. The typical DMS or OMS will get the bulk of its network model from a GIS but may add additional information for specific functional purposes. There also is a silo problem within the utility where one business area may not even be aware of what is available from other areas. Even worse they are aware but because it is 'not good enough' create their own model. Issues like these and others have been identified in the workshops conducted as part of EPRI's Grid Data Model Management project (Grid Data Model Management (GMDM) Vendor Presentation for a lengthy perspective). Much of the 'sunk cost' is related to the primary function provided by the application not the network model management aspect so that should not be a major issue.

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Mar 19, 2020

These other systems provide focused solutions - control, metering, system analysis.  The problem has been that they tend to work off an abstraction of the grid data - SCADA only cares about the connectivity. ADMS doesn't care about the structural aspects of the grid. AMI only deals with the customer meters. The investments in those focused solutions are fine and justified. However, none of these systems provides a true picture of the grid and its surroundings like GIS. Each system is like one of your kids - you have to provide the integration of their activities - the more kids the more chaos.  GiS is like the nanny who simply handles all their interactions. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 19, 2020

Each system is like one of your kids - you have to provide the integration of their activities - the more kids the more chaos.  GiS is like the nanny who simply handles all their interactions. 

Always appreciate your analogies, Bill-- really help drive the understanding home!

Bill Meehan's picture
Thank Bill for the Post!
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