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Geospatial at the Center of Innovation Continuum in Power Utilities

Geospatial plays a crucial role in the utility sector as more than 90% of utility enterprises have a context of location associated. Here’s a well-rounded take on how the private geospatial sector is navigating the new business reality by bringing leading-edge innovation to their products and services.
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Authored by Bhanu Rekha and Margarita Dadyan, the article was first published on Energy Central.


Even as increasing power demand ushers in revenue growth, power utilities are cognizant that they are operating in a rapidly changing business landscape with thin profit margins. They find themselves amidst technology disruption and operational issues such as supply of reliable power, aging infrastructure, grid modernization, cyber threats, renewable energy integration, distributed energy sources (DERs), and energy storage. On the other hand, they are obliged to comply with the frequent regulatory changes owing to energy transition shifts (non-renewable to renewable sources), sustainability concerns, and changing customer expectations.

Besides, utility operations wrestle with frequent power outages caused by weather-related events (e.g., drought-fueled wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes), many of which are expected to intensify due to climate change.

Amidst these changing market realities, the one key business differentiator utility companies swear by is the continuum of innovation – from innovations that bring about incremental shifts to truly transformative innovations – throughout the utility lifecycle to maintain sustainable operations, provide reliable services, have tight control over their bottom line, and stay competitive.  

Geospatial Data – Powering Innovation Continuum

More than 90% of utility enterprises have a context of location associated. Be it supply-demand, asset information, or source-consumer, the context of geography has always been a common binding factor. By harnessing geospatial data and location-based insights, utilities have traditionally improved operational effectiveness. For instance, using digital maps of their assets (powerlines, poles, sub-stations, transmission towers, etc.), utilities monitor infrastructure conditions and predict priority maintenance areas to avoid unanticipated downtime, reduce repair expenses, and enhance service reliability. Similarly, utility companies sieve through customer data and their location to pinpoint areas with high energy demand. This allows for efficient resource planning and meeting customer needs.  

Today, in the Industry 4.0 paradigm characterized by the convergence of digital, physical, and biological systems that operate seamlessly in real-time, utilities are building a spectrum of digital infrastructure mirroring their physical infrastructure and the environment around them. Even as this begins to revolutionize how energy is generated, distributed, sold, and consumed, geospatial technology finds next-level application, powering this innovation paradigm. Be it capturing asset data across the enterprise and building real-time analytics; moving from 2D to 3D models; from reality to virtual and back; and from cloud and AI to extended reality, digital twins, and metaverse, geospatial is taking center stage of innovations in the utility sector.  

This article attempts to highlight a few leading technology innovations across the utility sector where geospatial is a significant underpinning dimension.  

Innovations in Utility Asset Data Mapping and Monitoring

Accurate asset data is the lifeblood of all utilities, and geospatial companies act as essential bridges between government-to-citizen (G2C) and business-to-consumer (B2C) sectors by providing solutions to capture, map and monitor utility assets. “Setting aside the manual data collection methods, new techniques are being employed in data capture, such as high-density LiDAR (light detection and ranging technology) and high-resolution imagery from conventional/ remotely piloted aircraft and satellites – ranging from static mapping systems, mobile terrestrial and aquatic mapping systems – to rapidly map the assets along the transmission and distribution networks,” informs Brian Nicholls, Vice President – Asia Pacific, Woolpert. One of the main benefits of LiDAR data is its unparalleled accuracy and reliability. It is a precise and economical means for gathering pole information over substantial electricity distribution regions. Further, this data forms the base geospatial layers needed in the subsequent levels of the innovation continuum (e.g., digital twins).

High point density LiDAR (approximately 40 points/sq meter) imagery of urban distribution network. Picture Courtesy: Woolpert
High point density LiDAR (approximately 40 points/sq meter) imagery of urban distribution network. Picture Courtesy: Woolpert

After asset data capture, asset monitoring and management is a significant action for utilities, and geospatial companies deploy drones to perform automated inspections of solar parks, wind turbines, telecom towers, and power lines.

To control the growth and mitigate the impact of overgrown vegetation in and around power infrastructure, utility companies need vegetation management solutions as a preventive approach to ensure reliable and uninterrupted power supply. Geospatial solution providers such as Cyient offer vegetation management solutions that leverage the power of geospatial data along with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to provide insights for asset maintenance and optimization.

Similarly, Planet Labs, a satellite data and solution provider, is all set to launch their product to help utility companies to better plan by mapping where overhanging trees may strike power lines. “In California, for example, it is critical that structures in wildfire risk areas have defensible space, clear from vegetation. Utility agencies need these products to check millions of structures for defensible space requirements in an automated, cost-effective way,” informs Irene Benito, Senior Manager of European Affairs at Planet. In addition, Benito brings the example of one of Planet’s partners, Overstory, which provides real-time intelligence about the planet’s vegetation powered by AI and satellite data. “They help energy companies to mitigate wildfires and power outages by improving the safety and reliability of the transmission and distribution system and reducing grid operation costs,” reveals Benito.

Spatial Analytics

Once accurate and timely geospatial information is available, one can classify and identify features rapidly using spatial analytics. Understanding spatial relationships enables utility organizations to identify, evaluate, and mitigate risks. Seeing field activities in real-time over dashboards that display operational views of work improves workflows, resulting in more work completed in less time while optimizing costs. Spatial analytics determine why and where assets failed, identify patterns and help focus investment where it is needed most.

By helping utilities map a common ground, Esri, the leading geospatial software and solutions company, has been pivotal in supporting them to geo-enable utility environments with simplicity and leverage the 3As – access, awareness, and analytics. “ArcGIS helps manage data, share information, and visualize system status by providing all the key facts in one place, avoiding confusion, saving time, and providing insight into live operations for timely tactical responses and improved margins,” informs Agendra Kumar, Managing Director, Esri India.

Enhanced contextualization provided by geospatial technology enables the digital transformation of utilities while at the same time positioning them better to progress towards demand-based generation/distribution and consumer-centric tailored services. As an extensive information system that enables new results—solutions that devour underutilized data, harness analytics, and run on any device, intelligent utility solutions help utilities to reinvent geospatially.

Using the combined power of computing and the cloud, cloud-based geospatial offerings provide scalable computing, storage of large datasets, big data computation, and the ability to surge resources during critical events such as emergency response. The geospatial cloud strategy allows quick integration and analysis of large datasets and imagery at scale for even the largest utilities in the world. The combination of advanced spatial analytics and new AI tools helps model and visualize complex patterns, relationships, and situations.

Concurring with Kumar on the power of spatial analytics, Mike Battles, Senior Vice President & Market Director – Energy, Woolpert says, “Spatial analytics, combined with other data sources, powers the modeling of virtually unlimited scenarios,” and adds, “For example, what are the implications on a network on a very hot, windy day in densely populated cities such as Los Angeles, Sydney, or Singapore?” These are important scenarios to keep track for smooth operations of a utility.

Spatial Digital Twins

A digital twin, according to the World Geospatial Industry Council (WGIC) report  “Spatial Digital Twins: Global Status, Opportunities, and the Way Forward,” is a dynamic digital replica of its physical counterpart that provides up to real-time status and performance monitoring from sensors and observations. Spatial digital twins have a specific geospatial context providing a holistic, dimensional, location-based representation of assets, infrastructure, and systems. A spatial digital twin enables the end users to organize large amounts of data, visualize the same in 3D or 4D models and analyze. Continuous data exchange between the physical and virtual realms allows real-time monitoring, simulation, and analysis of the utility infrastructure.

Further, spatial digital twin technology enhances planning, asset management, operations and maintenance, grid resilience, customer service, and regulatory compliance, empowering utilities to optimize operations, improve efficiency, and deliver reliable and effective customer services. For example, the leading geo-data specialist Fugro’s solution provides utilities with a detailed high-precision 3D model of their electrical infrastructure, including the wires and poles. This digital twin gives power utilities a precise and comprehensive understanding of their network, enabling them to manage and maintain their infrastructure better. “In addition to a full-scale 3D network, our innovative solution models the environment around the assets to inform critical clearances, vegetation intrusions, and the spatial accuracy of the utility’s GIS schematic. With these analytics, our utility clients have implemented digital inspection programs that have helped reduce their carbon footprint, inspection cycles, and operating expenses,” apprises Dr. Pooja Mahapatra, Global Lead – Geospatial at Fugro.

Besides, digital twins enable geospatial data analysis related to DERs and modeling of how these privately owned assets may affect the grid and its performance.

“As power utilities face challenges such as aging infrastructure and growing demand, the importance of digital twins only continues to grow,” say Elshan Musayev, Managing Director, and Mustafa Musayev, Project Manager at EKM Global Consulting GmbH, a geospatial company that believes in bridging the communication gap between utility companies and technology companies.

Digital twin model that enables a virtual exploration of the overhead network. Picture credit: Fugro 
Digital twin model that enables a virtual exploration of the overhead network. Picture credit: Fugro 

Geospatial Integration in Smart Grids and Energy Transition

Smart grids sense and respond to imbalances in the grid more efficiently by using sensors, controllers, and computer systems to make automatic adjustments. They help prevent cascading outages and blackouts. Geospatial data provides an essential spatial context for various grid-related activities. It assists in grid planning and design by determining optimal locations for renewable energy installations, aids in asset management, facilitates situational awareness and incident response during emergencies, supports the integration and management of DERs such as rooftop solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations, and enables grid visualization and planning for analyzing network performance and future expansion needs.

However, to fully realize the potential of geospatial technologies and innovate, it is critical to abandon the siloed approach that leads to poor or no understanding of the status of utility infrastructure. This lack of understanding can result in inefficient resource allocation, limited preventive maintenance, ineffective planning and expansion, difficulty in disaster response, and limited collaboration and innovation within the organization.

Geospatial data combined with other data (operational data, sensor data, historical data, consumption patterns, demand fluctuations, seasonal variations, customer data, etc.) identified as critical for accurate decision-making can serve as a valuable feed for timely action for a utility organization. “Focusing on the assets and/or consumers in isolation is not enough. There is a need for a bird’s eye view that provides a spatial and temporal understanding of the expanse, dependencies, and linkages at a regional scale. At the same time, there is also a need for minute details at a local scale that provide intelligence for action on the ground, which only GIS provides,” Kumar articulates.

Considering “the profound impact current utility operations have on future generations, the sooner utilities reinvent themselves geospatially, the faster they can gear up for a sustainable and resilient digital future,” exhorts Kumar adding that “only geo-enabled smart utility networks can ensure reliability and strengthen the network resilience to bounce back in the event of disruptions.”

Geospatial technology provides additional dimensions to how businesses are managed, encompassing the asset side (tracking how things function in the field) and the customer side. The ability to acquire, organize, and integrate location information with other applications is vital, as it serves as a valuable data source for advanced analytics, including AI-driven processes, whose adoption is one the rise. Considering the volumes of data that grow from megabytes to terabytes, managing and utilizing it may be challenging and expensive. Thus, “to fully utilize this information, utilities must establish a central source of truth where the data can be assigned or integrated with other data to provide more insights,” advises Mahapatra of Fugro.

To open the data accessibility to a maximum number of stakeholders, Fugro went one step further and collaborated with the Houston Advanced Research Centre (HARC) on a US Department of Energy-funded project to create an innovative software tool for non-technical users to identify business opportunities for district energy and community microgrids, making geospatial data and engineering principles accessible to non-technical stakeholders such as investors or project developers seeking energy solutions at the community level. “Increasing tool accessibility reduces barriers and encourages stakeholder participation in the energy transition,” says Mahapatra.

Accessibility of the data across the company is essential to promote collaboration and informed decision-making and avoid data silos. For example, “Through our platform, utility service providers can collaborate internally, receive data through an API, and order data quickly and easily,” inform Emilia Nygren, PR & Communications Manager at Globhe, a company providing accurate and actionable drone data from anywhere in the world.

Collaboration to Boost Innovation

Utility networks are trans-geographical with multiple dimensions and stakeholders. Till the digitalization curve matures, understanding the existing and future consumers and scenarios is critical to designing a successful digital utility strategy. “With the ability to communicate in a simple language of maps, geospatial technology fosters enhanced situational awareness, larger participation, and increased collaboration – reducing digital inequality while at the same time helping utilities to widen their consumer base,” says Kumar.

On the other hand, the momentum in the energy transition from conventional sources to renewable energy and sustainability concerns are bringing about several shifts in how utilities operate. “One of the significant needs is for a stable and predictable regulatory environment that encourages long-term investment and planning, says Mahapatra and adds, “The power utility industry is heavily regulated, and changes in regulations have a significant impact on investment decisions, project planning, and operations. This uncertainty can create a barrier to entry for private sector investors and stifle innovation.”

Against this backdrop, a few companies see public-private partnership (PPP) as a good model of collaboration to promote innovation by bringing the resources, expertise, and experience of both the public and private sectors. However, they also wish to partake in policy-making that balances the competing priorities of affordability, reliability, and environmental sustainability. “For example,” says Mahapatra, “policies that incentivize renewable energy development can lead to higher energy costs for consumers, while policies that prioritize affordability may not do enough to encourage the adoption of clean energy technologies. We need to strike a balance.”

Echoing these sentiments, Benito says, “Companies, governments, and NGOs need to join forces to design a policy framework for a successful, accessible, and equitable transition.”

Considering that geospatial information is a core component of utility digital twins, Nicholls opines that new approaches regarding geospatial data procurement and intellectual property rights can drive innovation. High-density 3D geospatial information (e.g., dense lidar point clouds, 3D city models, mobile mapping) have value and utility across several sectors, including transport and infrastructure, urban planning, 5G communications, asset management, municipal government, etc. “If we can find better ways to share the cost of capturing and providing this geospatial information across multiple users, with the content provider retaining intellectual property rights, we can drive down cost and increase downstream innovation,” reasons Nicholls and adds, “This approach should be balanced with increasing cyber and sovereign risk and commercial matters including indemnity, liability, etc.”

Conclusion

The power sector is under significant transformation. To remain relevant and effective in this changing environment, geospatial companies invest in research and development to bring innovation to their solutions, expand service offerings to address new challenges and opportunities, and build strategic partnerships with other industry players to leverage complementary expertise and resources. Further, solid relationships with utility clients help them understand their evolving needs and priorities and tailor-make solutions, offer ongoing support and training so they maximize the value of geospatial technology. By driving innovation, the private geospatial sector supports the ongoing energy transition besides spurring utilities to stay on top of their power game.