Why I Got Into GIS

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: Photo 173188313 © Nuthawut Somsuk |
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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  • Jun 4, 2021

Three situations drove me to GIS.

Routing Cables Through a Power Plant

My first one came from my boss. He was the chief electrical engineer for the engineering firm I worked for. Jack was a grouchy, chain smoking, black coffee drinker. He was brilliant. I was a young engineer working on the design of large power plants at the time. In order to make money, firms had to come up with ways to create accurate designs at the lowest costs. That meant, doing things fast with a minimum of billed labor. One of the biggest headaches was detailing where each of the cables had to go. There were thousands of them. Control, sensor, power, lighting. You name it.

The problem also was that you couldn’t route control cables into the same pipe or cable tray with power cables. And you couldn’t load up the cable trays beyond a limit. All this effort was done by hand. The result was a huge batch of charts that detailed each cable and it’s path. Jack came to me one day and asked if I knew how to program a computer. Yes, I did. And I loved working with computers. So, he sent me off on a mission to automate both the routing of the cables and creating an easy way to present the results. He told me what he wanted the program to do. It took me six months to build it. It shaved weeks off the process. His vision was brilliant.

While the program was not a GIS, it had the same principles of GIS. It modeled equipment and their location. It created a system of record for the cables, pipes and cable trays. It took the data and analyzed the best route. Finally, it visualized the results in a way contractors could easily install the cables.

This concept stuck in my mind: model, analyze and visualize, then share.

Modeling Complex Electric Utility Systems

Later, when I worked at the power company, a young engineer approached me for help. Peter had a tough assignment. He was engineering the low voltage network that powered the entire downtown of the city. It was called the secondary network. He had two problems. First, the only real documentation were maps called secondary network sheets. Since the network was dense and underground, these maps were hard to read and very detailed. And old. He needed to run a load flow simulation, to make sure the network didn’t get overloaded. Overloading could cause cables to melt and bring the whole network to its knees. Peter knew I taught power system simulation at the university. That’s why he approached me.

He also had to optimize a path through the maze of underground pipes, vaults and manholes for new cables. Peter would gather up drawings of duct banks, cardboard manhole cards that dated back to the 1930’s, those old and hard to read secondary network sheets and who knows what else.

Ah! I had solved both of his problems before at the engineering company. In this case I knew a GIS would solve both his problems. It was like my cable routing program with mapping added.

Instead, of all that manual work we could model the pipes, duct banks and manholes and the electric networks from the maps. Once modeled, the load flow analysis and the cable routing would be automated. Peter estimated that it took him four weeks to navigate through all the documents to come up with a single path for a cable. And even then, the correct path might not even be the shortest path.

The same principles applied: model, analyze and visualize, then share.

Representing the Real World

The last story was when I observed that the transmission folks also had to consult several sources of data to their jobs. Like Peter, they had to run simulations. They had to maintain a real time control system, called SCADA (system control and data acquisition). They had to worry about trees growing into transmission lines. They needed information about rights-of-way, land parcels, historic data about wind, snow and ice. Their problem, like Jack’s and Peter’s was that there were too many sources of data that had to brought together to make decisions. The missing piece was the ability to view the transmission system in 3D. Engineers and operators had stacks of building layouts, construction plans, wiring diagrams and schematics just to figure out what was going on. During emergencies, this took time. Time often when customers were out of power: costly, wasteful and often dangerous. The solution again – GIS.

These Paths Led Me to GIS

I came back to the same notion: model, analyze and visualize, then share.

To me, a true GIS could do all these things. It could feed real-time systems, provide the data to network analysis and assist employees in seeing what’s happening.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I do now. What we needed all along was a kind of digital twin. From my early days with Jack, doing power plant design, to Peter and the transmission engineers at the power company, I now see GIS as the foundation of a digital twin. That’s why I got into GIS. It just made work a whole lot easier, safer and efficient. 

For more information on how GIS forms the foundation of the digital twin and electric utility initiatives, register for our webinar “Evolving Capabilities of Esri’s ArcGIS Utility Network”.

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Thank Bill for the Post!
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