Electrical utilities are one of the first industries to embrace geospatial technologies, and have probably spent the most on the technology of any industry outside of defense. Utilities have a need to keep close track of geographically disperse assets, as well as the need to communicate this information to a large client base both external and internal. The needs of the utility market have spurred major advancements in geospatial software on both the enterprise side and for mobile field-based computing.
The deregulation of the electrical utility industry in the late 1990s spurred a wave of growth through acquisition and consolidation. The need for streamlined operations in these newly aligned separate entities spurred the advancement of the spatial database and enterprise architectures in order to streamline the alignment of different systems. Much money was spent in this time frame on consolidating separate GIS systems into a single view, and a number of technologies and approaches for the enterprise user were born from these efforts.
A need to streamline operations and make the most of the new larger organizations led to a great investment in the fieldworker’s access to map data. Utilities realized that their largest gain from their geospatial infrastructure investment would be realized by giving their fieldworkers access to this data in the field. GIS systems became aligned with work management and outage management systems, and greater workflow efficiencies were realized. The data quality was also enhanced by having fieldworkers update and help maintain the data.
At the present time, there’s a growing interest across the country in green energy (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.). It’s the electric utilities that facilitate these technologies, and often times are the producers of this alternative energy.
Sustainability at a Utility
What does sustainability mean at a utility? Like many industries, environmental performance and sustainability practices are becoming an important metric for investors and customers who are eager to understand the relationship between the company’s environmental record and their financial performance.
So-called “triple-bottom-line reports” are being produced to understand:
- Environmental protection and resource conservation
- Economic performance and stability
- Social well-being and for both employees and communities
The financial impacts of environmental concerns are on the rise due to increased regulatory requirements, a growing concern about global climate change and the public’s interest in renewable energy. These forces have caused swift and dramatic change at utilities that can no longer rely on continuity of service as the primary metric of their performance. They need to think more broadly about their impact on the Earth, and to manage the risk of harming the planet as an ongoing environmental liability.
Utilities are now realizing that they have a need to leverage their GIS investments for environmental oversight, adding environmental management to a growing list of integrated systems with GIS at the core.
Green Energy Initiatives
In the United States there are growing regulatory mandates for a percentage of energy from renewable sources. The sources that are considered renewable include solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and hyroelectric.
Voters in my home state of Colorado passed a state amendment in 2004 that requires 3 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources this year, and 10 percent by 2015. The measure had broad bipartisan support given growing concerns about the geopolitical repercussions of relying on foreign energy sources.
The federal government has done little to spur renewable energy measures, but an increasing number of states have joined the cry. New Mexico requires 10 percent renewable electricity by 2011. Nevada requires 15 percent renewable electricity by 2013. New York State recently requires that 25 percent of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2013.
These growing mandates are spurring renewable energy investment on a large scale. These new power sources need to sited and transmission lines need to be run to them. GIS and aligned geospatial technologies are of course critical to these efforts. The technology plays a role through all phases of development. It is a key technology in the design and investigation stage. Helping states decide what the best renewable energy options are, and helping determine where the optimum site are. As the facilities are built, the technology assists in this process as well as in th process of connecting the facility to the grid. And, it’s a critical tool for ongoing maintenance.
Electrical utilities have a huge role to play in sustainable development. I would argue that the economic benefit of utilities going green is on the same level as consolidation and field force automation for the geospatial industry and the utilities themselves. There will be ample opportunities to provide services to streamline environmental monitoring and reporting. And a move to renewable energy will unleash a wave of large infrastructure projects with the ultimate long-term benefit of stable and reliable energy sources close to home that ensure a healthier planet.
I’m excited about the rapid progress that utilities have made toward sustainability, and the potential impact of these changes on their bottom line and the communities that they serve. I look forward to GITA’s Geospatial Infrastructure Solutions Conference in order to gain greater insight into this dramatic change for the greater good of all.
Read what Jeff Thurston has to say on this topic here.