One of the longer-standing roles of geographic information systems is in the utilities industry. And practically anyone who might learn GIS technology will discover, companies have used GIS to monitor electrical poles, analyze power usage, and plan future capacity to meet the changing needs of communities.
That role is only expanding because of the evolution of the smart grid, an information- and analytics-driven modern version of the more-than-a-century-old electrical grid. Instead of assuming that all power comes from a few locations and is doled out to businesses and homes that may use more or less of it, the smart grid concept looks at the reality of the future. Here’s how the federal government describes it:
In short, the digital technology that allows for two-way communication between the utility and its customers, and the sensing along the transmission lines is what makes the grid smart. Like the Internet, the Smart Grid will consist of controls, computers, automation, and new technologies and equipment working together, but in this case, these technologies will work with the electrical grid to respond digitally to our quickly changing electric demand.
With the potential for distributed power generation, like solar panels on buildings or small geothermal or hydroelectric plants run by consumers and businesses, the complexity of the smart grid grows. Power could come from anywhere (the roof of the local Wal-Mart), be used anywhere (plug the electric car into the charging station in an otherwise empty area), and managing the grid means knowing everything going on in all those locations. The last word is the basis. GIS uses location to collect and analyze all sorts of data. A smart grid needs geospatial data for efficient operation at an affordable cost:
[The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)] concluded that the cost of poor or incomplete data can be estimated through the impact on the operation systems and workflows of the utility but that good GIS data does not necessarily require heavy capital investment in technology; however, technology can be an enabler of better processes. Further, the benefit from multiple areas impacted by good data can be aggregated to provide a compelling case for data improvement.
Geotagging relevant data and combining it with real-time information from the grid itself would allow utility operators to better understand how and when people use power, detect inefficiencies in the system, and design capacity and strategy to provide people with what they need while reducing waste and even the production of greenhouse gases. Smart grids offer benefits to the vital use of power around the world — and to the career prospects of those who understand GIS technology.