How to Manage a Successful Public Utility

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Industry News
How to Manage a Successful Public Utility
by Susan Smith

Utilities, to me, represent maintaining and being in touch with our natural resources – water, energy, air, light. Utilities require paying attention to what has been built and isn’t working any more, what is new that can help restore our well being, what is draining our energy and needs to be replaced.

A large part of Autodesk’s geospatial business resides in the utility industry. Alan Saunders, Utilities Industry manager for Autodesk, impressed upon the audience at a workshop at Autodesk World Press Days in February, that a utility network is an “interconnected system of design networks.”

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Failure is a utility’s worst nightmare, said Saunders, reminding the audience of the $10 billion power outage on the East Coast several years ago, traced to poor vegetation management. A steampipe explosion in New York City cost $30,000,000. The pipe, put in place in 1934, needed to be replaced long before this happened, emphasizing the cost of aging infrastructure which faces utilities worldwide. “We need to manage data silos and at the same time rebuild and maintain utility infrastructure, need to improve data, and CAD to GIS integration,” Saunders said.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that 50% of utility workers are eligible for retirement in the next 10 years.

With these challenges in mind, Autodesk provides purpose built utility systems for new engineers or planners to model the network. The Utility Design tool informs the new supervisor as to whether he has sized a tool correctly, in the absence of a more experienced supervisor on the job.

Driven by our quest to be sustainable and live in a healthy way on this planet, there is a turnover of people, technology, jobs, and power.

The use of wind turbines has grown from 2000 to 2006. Utilities can now control a high density grid – “a living, self-healing grid that requires much more modeling capabilities than previous ones,” Saunders pointed out. Autodesk Topobase is used in one small community to track and manage solar grids.

There are 50% more people living in urban areas today, which means cities will require more power to maintain them. We need to reduce their dependence upon natural resources. “Good design in utilities is a bit less tangible than in cars, or movies, and we only recognize them in their obvious absence,” said Saunders.

Good design also relies on geospatial information, as designs must be placed in their proper spatial context. LiDAR and geospatial solutions are just two elements to add to the design content.

In a demonstration, a 3D model created by Parsons Brinckerhoff in 3ds Max was shown. “We will begin to see intelligent 3D models of entire cities. Google Earth will give you a visual but not a rich intelligent version. 3D cities will have 3D intelligence for future city management and infrastructure management,” Saunders explained. A tool that might be able to deliver on that could be Google Earth extension for AutoCAD that is on Autodesk Labs. Using the wizard-driven interface, you can publish your 3D models from AutoCAD or select AutoCAD-based products directly into Google Earth. The technology preview is available for 2007 and 2008 versions.

Another demonstration showed an urban utility view of the University of Colorado in Boulder in a simulation of a utility environment. Displayed was a look beneath the surface at the infrastructure of gas lines, water, lines, electric lines. Vertical bars indicated utility use. In order to find out what service is available to serve this building, you can shut off some layers and see water lines only, which reveals what lines service the building. Users can open up valve and water pressure in the building.

Las Vegas Valley Water District

Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD) has become a sort of poster child for Autodesk in recent years. I covered LVVWD in 2004 when Autodesk sent some journalists over to the site during AU. Since then, the utility has evolved and migrated to a fully automated system which was well under way when I visited.

The LVVWD is responsible for approximately 4,700 miles of pipe line to manage, inspect and maintain. Although it is expensive using a 3D model to know exactly where your pipes are, Jonathan Pickus, AM/FM/GIS Division manager said, it’s more expensive to dig up the street. That’s why the utility spends money in order to leverage new technologies to support functions.

Just a few facts: LVVWD is the largest water utility in Southern Nevada and the operating agency for Southern Nevada Water Authority, serving almost one million people in a very dry desert community that gets its water from Lake Mead. Water distribution has doubled in the last 15 years, which has forced the utility to change. “We have a huge economic engine,” Pickus pointed out. “40 million people visit Vegas a year, “We have to serve water efficiently and make sure it’s uninterrupted. Our new service accounts are huge – in 2007 we had 5,687 new accounts.”

When Pickus arrived in 1987, the project was overwhelming: there were 80-100 projects every month. 50-60 projects sat on managers’ desks.

Today, with engineering design technology integrated with geospatial technology, the utility has powerful capabilities not usually found in traditional GIS systems. “We deployed software we built in house that managed technological challenges. Barriers that occur with other systems don’t occur in our company. We were the first to deploy Topobase.”

With the automation of data generation from field to office, now every piece of field data is collected with GPS. LVVWD built software on top of Autodesk Map which “completely removed redundancy from our system,” said Pickus. The new system helped reduce the number of backlogged projects, meanwhile 850 new projects still come in a month. The database grew by 63%.

“We automated a big back end of our project lifecycle, and now we can use manpower and innovate products and services for the rest of the utility,” Pickus explained. In addition, the utility deploys automated mapping systems, “Now we are assured that when anyone in the entire district picks up a map it will be up to date.”

Although not mentioned by name during the presentation, LVVWD uses ESRI's ArcMap on an SDE geodatabase for geospatial. Since Autodesk’s geospatial portal integrates well with other ones, Pickus said they were able to design their portal to support specific business processes such as a water quality map, status of water quality, a system shut down map that shows relationships between valves and the businesses they support.

Services such as “call before you dig” are critical to a utility the size of LVVWD. The portal can be extended to geospatial services to monitor performance as well as the location of vehicles.

To its credit, the district has been innovative in dealing with the biggest drought in the last 500 years, according to Pickus. For three to five years, they have been moving turf at a cost of $3-5 million as part of a “turf rebatement program,” where turf is identified and people are paid not to use water.

LVVWD has grown since we last checked in. They are now leveraging 3D technology and adding LiDAR and GPS to their toolbox. “How do we leverage 3D technology to support the transmission of water, distribution systems, how do we build these models of our complex systems?” Pickus queried.

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