From ageing infrastructure to changing customer needs, utilities in Asia face a diverse set of problems. But they all share one thing in common: location.

Location provides a common language for departments to work together, talk with customers, spot weaknesses in infrastructure, and respond quickly. “While the nature of these big challenges are diverse, they all share a strong geographic component and must be addressed by putting GIS technology to work”, according to Bill Meehan, Global Director of Utilities at Esri, a leading provider in geospatial technology.

Esri shares five key areas in which location and geospatial can help utilities solve their problems.

1. Grid modernisation

As utilities add sensors to their power grids, it gets more complex to manage and understand the data. Geographic information systems (or GIS) helps use location to analyse and understand it.

Real-time sensor data combined with location allows utilities to understand how the grid is performing and identify hidden vulnerabilities. Where is there a weakness? Do we have a team nearby to fix it? Data is much easier to understand when tied to location.

The quality and timeliness of data is crucial at this stage. Even a small percentage of errors in grid data can cost the safety of an employee or the reliable access to electricity for a home. Combining GIS with mobile apps is making a huge difference here, with utilities able to capture, edit and share data in real-time.

2. Asset management

Utilities have to continuously monitor their infrastructure, which is often in remote areas. Geospatial analysis allows utilities to predict asset failure at a lower cost.

Esri’s platform can handle billions of data elements and provide access to a real-time digital model of the entire network on any device. Employees can trace the path of a network on a smartphone or tablet in the field.

In London, authorities used a mobile app to increase the efficiency of safety and reliability inspections of power cables. It halved the labour requirement, reduce the average cost per inspection and allowed remote inspections. All in all, this saved over US$180,000 and reduced safety hazards for the public and employees.

3. Public safety

Location is absolutely critical for the safety of employees during maintenance and repair works. “If workers are unsure of where something is located, they might mistake one device for another and get hurt,” according to Meehan. Unlike paper maps, GIS can provide field employees with accurate real-time data.

If there is a lapse in safety, utilities must conduct expensive audits. Utilities can improve their regulatory compliance with real-time reporting. Digital maps and GIS allow companies to quickly identify weaknesses and easily share performance data with authorities.

Location also helps improve the safety of communities that live around electricity infrastructure. In case of an emergency, such as during a flood, storm or a power outage, maps provide an efficient and easy-to-understand way to share danger zones and hotspots with communities.

In Scotland, geospatial technology has enabled a system that monitors power outages during storms. It provides auditable reports to the government when storms have caused outages. In addition, it shows the location and numbers of customers affected, allowing the utility to send response units and restore power in the shortest possible time.

4. Customer engagement

With electricity markets becoming more competitive, customer engagement has become increasingly important in Asia. Geospatial platforms help provide timely information to customers on outages and restoration.

GIS integrates with social media, allowing utilities to engage directly with their customers. They can analyse complaints on social media to understand weaknesses. This can also help customers make decisions on safety during an emergency.

In Seattle, the city utility combs social media for specific terms and topics which could indicate problems with its network. Its staff get real time updates on these mentions and the data is analysed using GIS and combined on a performance dashboard together with demographics, consumer behaviour, sensor data, and environmental and weather information.

5. Innovation

Climate change has spurred adoption of renewable energy sources and created a new market for distributed energy resources. This has disrupted utilities which have traditionally been monopolies, urging them to look at new business models and use cutting edge technologies.

GIS speeds up the adoption of new digital technologies. Esri’s powerful ArcGIS platform supports the use of the latest AI and machine learning tools, and can handle high-volume images from drones.

A team at the Australian National University, for example, is using 3D GIS to map how the country could build a 100% renewable energy grid. The 3D analysis allows researchers to create realistic models of how this would work, and publicly share its findings so that others can contribute to the project.

In all five of these areas, location is a critical factor and geospatial technology can help utilities address its challenges.

To find out more about how utilities can use the language of location, download the full e-book here.