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Modernizing Utilities Infrastructure in an Era of Competing Challenges

Written by Rob Lenarcic , General Manager of Utilities for North America, VertiGIS 

Electric, gas, and water utility companies face challenges in almost every facet of their business. From climate change and decarbonization to modernizing pipelines, distribution networks, and power grids, ensuring reliable energy sources, and tackling aging infrastructure to digitally transform and better harness data – the issues are complex and interdependent.  

For example, modernizing and evolving new power grids or water and gas supply networks requires new planning resources, assets, and strategies, as well as significant investment. However, the industry, like many others, faces a shortage of skilled workers and an aging workforce. At the same time, the trend toward increased electrification is rapidly accelerating across various sectors, in particular EVs, forcing power companies to prepare for increased demand.  

Utilities are also working hard to adapt to and leverage digital technology to gain the advanced insight and agility needed to deliver robust, reliable services. Yet, these organizations are often tackling today’s challenges with yesterday’s methods. They are reliant on an aging infrastructure which is not only expensive to run and maintain but is also frequently dependent on manual operations that are difficult to scale and hard to integrate with third party digital systems. 

No unified system of record  

This, combined with a lack of unified asset management systems, is hampering innovation and development. Utilities often don’t have a thorough system of record, a system of engagement, and a system of insight. They typically lack automated standard operating procedures and often don’t have automated workflows associated with their asset management systems. This means that when problems arise there are no records documenting appropriate corrective actions. Instead, companies often rely on veteran subject matter experts who, in many cases, like to do things manually. 

In today’s environment, utility companies clearly need to optimize planning for industrial assets to better meet the challenges outlined above and comply with evolving regulatory and environmental requirements. However, many of these organizations don’t have modern asset investment planning approaches either, to respond to these factors and optimize their spending. Investment decisions for critical assets have often relied on historical practices and rules of thumb, processed in manual spreadsheets.  

These legacy processes are ineffective, error-prone, and often complicated. Additionally, the decision-making process is not repeatable or auditable.  

The role of GIS 

Most utilities track their assets in databases or specialized platforms. Those assets have spatial elements or components that are included within the inventories. For example, above-ground power line systems, poles, stations, and protective devices all have precise geographic location data. This is where utility companies rely on geospatial technology to visualize their infrastructure. This could be serving a network underground or an aerial network above the ground. 

GIS is a tool for   getting the most out of spatial data. Spatial data is any data with a link to geography. This could be direct, such as X and Y coordinates, or indirect, for example when you have data associated with a location such as a postcode.  

GIS drives the ability to derive meaning from this data, transforming it into information that can be actioned. When organizations have digitized plans of their estate to understand what’s under and above ground, they utilize GIS software.  

How GIS software enables utilities to tackle aging infrastructure 

One of the key challenges facing utilities is aging infrastructure, including pipelines, treatment plants, and storage facilities. Managing and maintaining this infrastructure is a constant challenge, requiring substantial investments for repairs, replacements, and upgrades. 

This is where GIS software enables utilities to visualize, trace, and maintain their entire network. They can address and document aging infrastructure in real time and manage maintenance through one pane of glass. Aging infrastructure eventually needs replacement. When that time comes, GIS software can help utility organizations prioritize what infrastructure is likely to need replacement first based on historical evidence and predictive analytics derived from trained machine learning models. GIS software can be used to plan retirement or replacement of infrastructure, coordinating with multiple agencies and departments around capital improvement. Likewise, GIS software is essential throughout the planning, design, and construction phases of infrastructure projects, and for recording as-built modifications. 

The result might be that a city digs up a road once to access a common trench which can be used to replace water, sewer, and gas infrastructure simultaneously, rather than digging up the same road three times over a three-year period. GIS software can also expose information dashboards to executives, or the public, who may be interested in the status of replacements or capital improvement projects scheduled in the future. 

Enabling more employees to access and share data 

With many utilities facing staffing challenges, making sure that software solutions are easy for end-users as well as administrators is critical. This is where SaaS or managed service options help to eliminate single points of failure, instead relying on a robust, secure, cloud-hosted application that scales to the organizations’ demands, without the administrative overhead or internal IT costs.  

Utilities should be looking at web-based solutions that enable more employees across the business to access and work with their data – from anywhere. This democratizes workflows across the organization to improve efficiency and reduce dependency on a small set of veteran experts that can lead to bottlenecks. These solutions should be lightweight and web-based, enabling organizations to always have efficient and cost-effective access to the latest technology. 

In the past, expert GIS systems required large, heavy workstations. These are increasingly expensive to deploy and maintain and are untenable in a cloud setting. On the other hand, lightweight SaaS software doesn’t require significant hardware investments, making it ideal to support some of the largest organizations.  

This not only lowers total cost of ownership; it’s easier, cheaper and more accessible to get it into the hands of people who work with network data. 

Modernization of utilities is pervasive across the globe 

Globally, the electric, gas and water industries are transitioning to improved methods and technology due to regulatory and social pressures. Better utilization of existing assets, combined with energy and water conservation, offer great potential for cost savings. The modernization of utilities involves expanded use of rich data, and the deployment of powerful user-focused GIS software systems. Modern utilities require their engineers to adopt data-driven decision-making, collaborating and accessing information across departments.  

Therefore, reducing information silos within utilities allows them to innovate and deliver more digitized services. Not only does this enable a wider employee pool to access services and benefit from information sharing, but it enhances safety, reliability, and improves customer experience. But the advantages extend far beyond this. Implementing better systems enables utility companies to future-proof their capabilities while managing natural resources, such as water, gas, or electricity, far more efficiently to reduce wastage and leakage. This aligns directly with climate action goals and contributes towards a cleaner, greener future for all.