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Grid modernization is an idea that takes on classic utility challenges and new ones too. Many long-standing assumptions about generation, climate, and customers are changing. As a result, utilities are changing too.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) established its Grid Modernization Initiative in response to changes in societal values. The DOE strategy addresses sustainability, security, reliability, resilience, flexibility and overall affordability. That last one is the real pinch point!

Each of the goals is do-able on their own. However, taken together grid modernization is forcing utilities to implement novel and innovative responses. Answers lie beyond the reach of simply doing more of the same. Comprehensive solutions demand elegant new approaches to make changes in the right places.

“Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.” ―Malcolm Gladwell

How can elegant solutions be identified? Grid modernization is a transition to new ways of understanding, thinking, and working. Information powers them all (explore).

Data, analytics, and modeling sit at center stage. And, as with most leadership efforts, nothing moves forward without crystal clear communication. Reflect on these areas when assessing grid modernization readiness.

  1. Customary design and planning tools rely on very simplified models of the power system. They use timeworn methods. Quite simply, they are not up to the task. The goals necessitate a real-world real-time view of the entire electric system, including customers.
  2. Many new devices are coming on-scene. Adoption must push beyond the proof of concept stage. Management at scale depends on automation. Automation hinges on digital twin simulation of the physical. Expanded models, adequate to support operational systems, are essential to reaching the goals.
  3. To ensure security and resilience, utilities must reduce vulnerability. The goal is to anticipate, prepare for, and effectively respond to emergencies. Threat locations, impacts, asset details, and weather forecasts must be understood in light of the overall electric system.
  4. Real-time measurements increase situational awareness. They provide inputs for decision support. This relatively new style of information is key when it is tied to assets and customers. The modern workforce can change how they work with a real-time view on their device of choice.
  5. Common power flow, operations, and control systems are often very conservative. Slow to change, many neglect today's brilliant computing techniques. Obsolete concepts break down when it comes to distributed generation, transportation electrification, and energy storage. Only a new information framework can handle the complexities of a modern grid.
  6. Atop the technical needs, is the necessity to communicate better with every stakeholder. Employees, regulators and customers want to see the plans and the progress. Colorful new visualization techniques can be used to communicate ideas more clearly.
  7. Information systems to support grid modernization must operate at scale. They will include more detail, external data sources, real-time inputs, and advanced analytics. However, changes to information technology infrastructure cause ripples.

When I worked at the utility, I had to reject several interesting point solutions that did not fit well into the enterprise. Today, services-based architectures enable enterprise solutions to integrate well while respecting security protocols for both applications and data.

Esri helps utilities address the information solutions critical for grid modernization. Location technology ties utility information together. ArcGIS Utility Networks enable elegant approaches to each of the above considerations. They do it in cost-effective ways. To see how location technology supports grid modernization, download our free e-book.

Everyone wants to return to normal from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Many wonder - What is okay at the current recovery stage?

A group discussion about recovery took a turn for the worse. I asked - “Does anyone know what stage of recovery we are actually in today?” No one was confident in this simple yet essential information. Information feeding public health procedures was contradictory. It was not current or clear-cut.

Utility safety, like COVID-19 recovery, rests on clear concise communication. Many accidents result from communication mistakes. Customers get dropped unintentionally by switching errors. Lineworkers are injured when they contact energized equipment.

Misidentified equipment and out-of-date maps are two causes that sadly reappear again and again These are avoidable. Employees need current information to remain safe.

When it comes to safety, you do not take someone else’s word for it. You check for yourself. You verify switching and blocking instructions with your own maps and resolve any discrepancies. I heard this every day over the utility radio. Field staff and dispatchers cross-checked each other and adjusted for any oversights. They all need the very latest network maps.

For most of my career, I maintained one of the special circuit map sets – so I had the newest updates. These rode in my car in dedicated boxes right next to my hardhat and boots. I kept them up to date, just like the sets in the trouble trucks. However, even in the very best-case scenario, these yellowed papers were a full month behind. 

This is the information age. Within arm’s reach, we have a device that puts all human knowledge in our hands. The real-time state of the electric system can be communicated immediately and securely to everyone that needs to know.

Mobile apps put current maps in the field. Similarly, they also bring immediate updates back from the field. ArcGIS location technology shows field employees details of the equipment right where they stand. They can even see real-time data like equipment loads and temperature (example).

Clear communication is vital in everything we do. For COVID-19 and utility work, current information steers proper procedures and safety.

What if the map update time was reduced to zero with mobile apps? Every user would have live information to make the best decisions for safety and service.

To find out how live location-based information helps help utilities operate safely, visit our safety industry page.

Underground cable failures are the worst outages. Pick your least favorite place for corroded cables – direct buried, 1970’s cable in preassembled flexible conduit, or maybe collapsed ducts. These all turn fault locating and cable repair into a nightmare.

With a grim outlook for permanent repairs, attention may turn to temporary measures. Anything to get the customers back in service! Those bring safety concerns. I have used traffic ramps, cable tied to trees, 24 hour guards, and jet turbine generators more than once. What practices and tools can help manage old cable and improve asset management?

I recently visited a utility engineering office. A large paper map hung on the wall – the cable replacement plan. Millions of dollars! All in one region, faded yellow highlighter outlined the neighborhoods for replacement over the next five years.

I asked why. Those areas were based on campfire storiesTales of extended outages that “made it into the newspaper” years ago. Today that would be on Facebook. The focus on this region was based on hazy executive promises to “do something about it”. The plan was not even based on cable age - it was an enduring kneejerk reaction driving asset management.

Obvious questions revealed opportunities for improvement:

  • Is this the oldest cable? Not necessarily.
  • Are other areas in need of work? Surely.
  • Is this the best area to focus on? Debatable.

What would be better?

If the idea is to replace old cable, it would be better to determine where cables are oldest. That would at least be defensible when asked  - Why is the utility working there and not over here?

What would be better?

Age is not always the best indicator of asset health. Better yet would be to consider the current asset condition. Include the last periodic inspection, or data gathered the last time a crew did their safety inspection before normal work. Adding knowledge of past faults and historic failure rates would be very insightful. Definitely better.

What would be better?

Not all cables are used in the same way. Some extend to only a few customers – some serve critical loads. Radial sections have no switching options. Looped segments enjoy alternate feeds making restoration much faster and easier. Prioritizing work based on asset criticality and restoration effort would take cable replacement to a whole new level. Now we are getting somewhere!

What would be better?

Top it off with information about the environment. Soil conditions, imagery, weather, and customer demographics all bring new perspectives. Optimize the whole asset management process. Balance asset performance against cost, resources, reliability, and compliance. So much better!

Wrap Up

Enterprise asset management (EAM) systems handle many aspects of the asset life cycle. However, they are blind to the spatial relationship of assets between each other, outside influences, or customers. Understanding these connections is essential to optimized asset management.

The data often rests in different systems – in silos. What is needed it to unite asset data with the network connectivity model, outages, customers, environmental factors. See all the data in one place – organized around location. It is the one thing in common.

Most utilities already use GIS for asset management in some capacity. Yet, how they use it is changing. ArcGIS is a complete GIS. Complete means it contains all the elements needed to solve asset management challenges, not just make conventional maps.

These capabilities unite asset information. Combining asset health data and real-time feeds show how the network is performing. With location as the centerpiece, a total view bonds maintenance, capital, and operational strategies to improve key performance indicators and business results.

The next time you see an engineer go to look at the faded cable replacement map remind them it could be better. Optimize the process and get that information in a web browser, a phone app, or right in CAD. Use location technology.

To find out how ArcGIS can help utilities optimize asset management, download our free e-book.

A Virtual User Conference

The first ESRI virtual User Conference July 13-16, 2020 (UC) is now over. The theme, How GIS is Interconnecting Our World struck a chord with over 86,000 people. As the hundreds of on-demand demonstrations, technical sessions, user presentations, and partners unfolded, it was clear that understanding precedes action. Furthermore, the best way to gain that understanding is with what is arguably the most powerful technology in the world – GIS.


Normally in San Diego, Esri would expect under 20,000 attendees. The virtual format opened the impressive content to new viewers and many additional people from customer organizations. 71% of participants were first-time attendees, and involvement from outside the US was significantly up over prior years.


For the first time, users had ready access to virtually all the ESRI staff in every discipline at UC. This was a fantastic opportunity to answer every question and chat with experts.

At the plenary sessions, everyone had a front-row seat! Jack Dangermond inspired viewers and showed several captivating videos that demonstrated how ArcGIS is being applied around the globe. The plenary sessions can be viewed on YouTube.  

The virtual map gallery is publicly accessible and continues to be a big hit showing some of the best digital cartography at UC. Anyone can get a crisp ESRI T-shirt at the new online Merch Store without traveling to San Diego and waiting in line at the convention center.




It wasn’t the same as a live gathering, but in some ways it was even better. How else could you get to every session you want to see? And, review it again later?


Trends in GIS

Reflecting on the week, several trends emerged.

  1. GIS applications are becoming dramatically easier, more powerful, and more available. The true power stems from frictionless access to virtually everyone – utility employees, executives, field staff, customers, regulators, and the media.
  2. Geospatial Hubs are organizing information sharing - improving relationships, collaboration, and cooperation.
  3. GIS systems are becoming more interconnected creating a geospatial infrastructure to address business and societal needs and create value.
  4. GIS is becoming more real-time, connecting sensors, the IoT, and remote sensing. This boosts situational awareness from the control room to the service truck in the field.
  5. Geographic science is gathering more knowledge. It helps understand more data inputs and greater complexity. Most importantly, it applies additional knowledge to solving real problems and meeting strategic business objectives.

New Developments

It would be impossible to capture all the exciting new developments. Here are a few that caught my special attention:


ArcGIS Pro is more tightly connected to Autodesk tools like BIM360. Users can now connect to CAD data stored in the cloud, use CAD within GIS, and even push CAD updates to GIS including #UtilityNetworks. Non-spatial objects in ArcGIS Utility Network accurately model complex fiber networks, conduits in duct banks, and other forms of connected information. Deilson da Silva explains this starting 6:25 in this video.


ArcGIS LocateXT extracts location information, text, and dates from unstructured documents and adds it to maps. Think about MSWord, email, csv, txt, pdf files, and all the useful information they contain in your organization. 


ArcGIS Pro Time Series Forecasting Advanced tools ingest space-time data like energy usage and use machine learning techniques to make accurate predictions about the future.


ArcGIS Analytics for IoT – Suzanne Foss explains how to work with big data, data in real-time, or near real-time, to drive insight and take action.


Video Game visualization engines are being used for stunning immersive visualizations like wildfires.


Field Operations got a lot of attention from utility users with new capabilities and the streamlining of workflows in the new ArcGIS Field Maps.


Site Scan for ArcGIS is taking off as a cloud-based solution for automated drone flight planning, and image processing and analysis, that leverages the existing GIS. Drone image data immediately available throughout the organization. It can be published on a map to ArcGIS Online to communicate and share. ArcGIS can now work with stacks of imagery to perform trend analysis, prediction, and change detection.



Thank you for being our customers and business partners. Esri was founded to help solve some of the world's most difficult problems. We support our users' important work with a commitment to science, sustainability, community, education, research, and positive change.


Please consider joining the Esri GeoConX event in the fall. The 2020 GeoConX Conference is going virtual. The world's largest and leading utility and telecom GIS conference will be an immersive virtual experience for the GIS community.


Let’s all look forward to the great work we will review together next year at UC in 2021.

By Tom Coolidge and Tom DeWitte

“Tell me about yourself.” How many times have we all heard those words from others trying to understand us and our life journey to a point in time? The natural gas distribution industry and transmission industry have similar but different life journeys to an improved level of safety resulting from better knowledge of their assets. Both initiatives behind these stories now are almost ten years old.

In the distribution industry, the initiative is known as Tracking and Traceability. In the transmission industry, it’s known as Traceable, Verifiable, and Complete. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) launched both initiatives.

For those not familiar with Tracking and Traceability in the natural gas distribution industry, this initiative is about improving the information a natural gas organization maintains about an asset, such as a pipe segment, a valve or a fitting. It is important that a natural gas organization knows who manufactured the asset, who enhanced the asset (i.e. applied a protective coating), by whom and when was the asset tested, and by who, where and when was the asset installed. Like very protective parents, safety demands the need to know from where the asset came, where the asset has been, what did it do, and where is it currently. Through the efforts of multiple industry organizations, including the Plastic Pipe Institute, the American Gas Association, pipe manufacturers, and others, Tracking and Traceability was born to supply the facts required for a better answer.

In the natural gas transmission industry, PHMSA introduced the Traceable, Verifiable, and Complete requirement. Traceable in this context means records that can be clearly linked to original information about a pipe network component. For instance, this might be a pipe mill record or purchase requisition. Verifiable records confirm the documentation used for traceability. An example of a verifiable record is a pressure test complemented by pressure tests or field logs. Complete records are those that finalize documentation of a pipe network component. For example, a complete pressure testing record should identify a specific segment of pipe, who conducted the test, the duration of the test, the test medium, temperatures, accurate pressure readings, and elevation information as applicable.

While, as you can see, the journeys are in different forms, they bear obvious similarities. And, a geographic information system (GIS) is at the heart of both.


Capturing the Life Journey of an Asset

Capturing a complete traceable set of information for an asset requires an information system with unique capabilities. A traceable system of record needs to be able to store the following types of information about an asset:

  • Documents
  • Photos
  • Digital descriptors
  • Location
  • Geospatial representation


To meet the needs of a gas system, this information system also needs to be able to provide this information to the gas organization staff both in the office and in the field.  When in the field this information needs to be available whether the mobile device is connected or operating in a disconnected state.  That is a pretty tall order of capabilities.  Of all the different types of information systems available today, only a GIS has the capability to store all these components of information an asset collects over its life journey. 

Over the course of an asset’s life journey there will also be many tests and inspections.  These, too, need to be associated to the asset for the asset’s life journey. Additionally, these inspections and tests need to be available to employees both in the office and in the field.  A field cathodic protection technician needs to not only know where a cathodic protection test point is located, what type it is, and who manufactured it, the technician also needs to have access to the history of inspections taken at the test point.

This is why the gas industry is increasingly looking to their GIS as the foundation of their plans for implementing a system of record that meets the needs of traceability.


Tracking Changes to an Asset over Time

Meeting the needs of Traceability also requires knowing when the information about an asset was changed, who made the change, and what was changed. This set of information needs to cover every change made to the information about the asset over the life of the asset. Accomplishing this requires both the ability to track the edits made to the asset record, and the ability to archive the history of changes.  This audit trail of changes to the GIS-maintained assets must be persisted for the life of the asset.

The greater the portion of an asset’s life journey that can have an unbroken audit trail, the more verifiable the information about the asset. Accomplishing an unbroken audit trail of the operational life journey of an asset requires a GIS which is also a fully integrated platform.  One that allows the editor tracking to begin in the field when the asset is initially installed and placed into service. This field-initiated audit trail must be part of the GIS’s security system for capturing who recorded the installation of the asset.  This capture of who recorded the installation, and when was the installation recorded, must be system managed so that users are unable to “fake” the system by manipulation of the recorded date time, and user information.

Verifying the completeness of the information about an asset includes verifying the integrity of the information.  An integrity that can be sustained as an unbroken audit trail for the operational life journey of the asset.      


A modern GIS, one that has been architected to be a platform solution, capable of collecting new assets both in the field and in the office is the foundation technology for a successful traceability program.  The information collected about an asset includes its documents, manufacturer specifications, installation photos, location description, geospatial representation, inspections, and tests. This complete set of information needs to be available to utility staff when they need it, regardless of location or device.  The verifiability of this information needs to include a system-managed audit trail capability, which cannot be manipulated and persists as an unbroken recording of the life journey of the asset.

Only a modern GIS can answer the question; “so, tell me about yourself”.