Applications of GIS in the Electric Utility Sector

By Jonathan Susser | May 27, 2020

From Google Maps to geotagging on Facebook, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have become an everyday part of life. Like other computationally intensive fields, GIS has its roots in the 1960s, an era of rapid technological development in computer science. The evolution of quantitative geography paved the way for the GIS platform we know today, and it is now used across all major industrial sectors. In the energy and electric utility arenas, GIS has been applied to infrastructure siting/capacity planning, resiliency analyses, disaster response and more.

What is GIS?

Simply put, GIS translates data about places and locations into a visual format — either interactive maps or static customized maps — allowing us to answer questions and analyze results.

Creating GIS maps requires handling large datasets and performing numerous complex calculations, which can be achieved through GIS software packages. The ArcMap package by Esri is one of the more popular licensed GIS applications that require a fee to access. However, there are also open-source and free software applications, including QGIS and GRASS.

Why is GIS relevant to the electric utility sector?

Even before the era of computational GIS, mapping techniques had been used for oil and gas explorations. Today, with the tool’s expanded capabilities, applications in the electric utility sector include:

  • Optimizing assets
  • Long-term capacity planning
  • Scheduling emergency response during storms

How has Advanced Energy used GIS?

GIS-based analyses have been used extensively in connection with electric vehicles (EVs). Utilities (both large investor-owned utilities and smaller electric cooperatives) are interested in the impacts of growing EV adoption in their service territories. Over the last couple of years, we have provided EV strategic planning for utilities in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic and have leveraged Esri’s ArcMap package to answer questions such as:

  • What strategies would address the need for expanding EV charging infrastructure to support growing EV adoption?
  • How can we best identify target audiences to disseminate EV information and receive feedback regarding potential EV programs?

As an example, let’s look at an interactive map of EVs in North Carolina:

The map overlays the locations of EV charging stations with EV registrations by county. It also details the proximity of charging infrastructure to roads and highways. This information can help utilities:

  • Identify counties that are underserved by charging infrastructure based on their EV registration numbers
  • Plan programs and offerings to benefit EV owners
  • Detect parts of their service territory with more EV drivers to forecast demand impacts of charging
  • Locate corridors along which to deploy charging infrastructure to support interstate and intrastate travel
  • Home in on counties and energy consumers to engage with to encourage EV adoption

What can we expect from GIS in the future?

The definition of GIS has evolved over the years. What used to be a piece of software that was accessible only via a desktop computer has expanded to mobile devices. Cloud computing platforms and hand-held data collection systems have allowed for the efficient gathering and storage of geographic data.

For a utility, these developments could mean being able to collect data on the go and better integrate system components, including customer information systems, work management systems (which track work as it is designed, approved and completed), distribution planning systems, enterprise asset management, outage management, engineering analysis, weather tracking systems, document management, supervisory control and data acquisition, advanced metering infrastructure/meter data management systems as well as automatic vehicle location systems.

As an example, consider Esri’s new desktop application, ArcGIS Pro. ArcGIS Pro’s capabilities include ways to manage transmission congestion in the network, support for updating transmission and distribution lines to reflect grid changes (power plant retirements, new load centers, etc.) and more.

Present-day GIS cannot synchronize all systems; however, GIS software developers and utility operators are starting to recognize the possibilities of integrating spatial analytics with engineering assessments, resulting in more efficient planning and forecasting operations. Ongoing efforts reflect a broader vision for incorporating GIS in the electric utility sector.

Additional resources

To learn more about the role of GIS in the electric utility sector, check out these resources:

  • Esri’s Website: Esri is one of the best-known GIS providers in the industry, and its website provides detailed information on its current offerings and initiatives.
  • “The Future of GIS”: A series of articles by T&D World that provides a great introduction to the links between GIS and utility data analytics.
  • Online Courses: If you prefer a classroom environment but don’t have time for university courses, there are various online course materials to get you started learning GIS.