The geographic information system (GIS) is a software that links geographic information with descriptive information. It allows companies to view the necessary data on advanced geographical maps, which provides them with a more holistic view of their infrastructure and assets. In energy utilities, GIS technology helps improve all levels of operations, such as asset management, planning and analysis, field and design mobility, and operational awareness. The significance of the software is highlighted by the fact that it is often viewed as the backbone of an energy company’s asset database as it utilises advanced sensing, communication and control technologies to distribute energy in a more effective, economical and secure manner.
Need for GIS in gas distribution
Notably, a gas distribution system is more complex than gas and electric transmission systems. For instance, gas distribution pipelines consist of small segments of pipes with various diameters, which are connected by different kinds of fittings and gas control components placed at regular intervals in the network. Therefore, it is critical for city gas distribution (CGD) companies to be attentive and responsive to factors like gas leaks, the impact of the environment on their assets, replacement of components when required, impact of their assets on other utilities, and so on. In order to achieve this, CGD companies use GIS software products to support their engineering and operational activities.
GIS software companies have introduced various solutions including outage management systems, engineering design, transmission corridor management, and network asset management. Gas distribution companies have implemented these products separately to support their business workflow across different departments such as services groups, consumer groups, operations groups and billing groups. Some of the key benefits that GIS solutions offer to utilities are discussed below.
- Integrity management: Gas distribution companies constantly face several risks in the form of leaks, corrosion, excavation damages and unplanned outages. In this context, it is essential for CGD companies to tackle integrity requirements. GIS technology helps utilities understand the existing network elements such as mains, services, valves, regulators, cathodic sections and meters. It provides information about piping material, diameter, operating pressure, whether the pipe is exposed or cased, leaks in pipes and their repair and maintenance history.
- Leak management: GIS technology provides leak survey tools that allow gas utilities to manage leakages in the distribution system. The leaks are plotted on digital GIS maps, and leak repair schedules can be automatically generated and sent to the repair crew located closest to the leak.
- Risk management: GIS identifies exposed pipes in a given location. If CGD companies expect the demand for gas to increase in that particular location, they can make prior plans to replace the vulnerable pipes, in order to reduce the risk of damage.
- Corrosion management: Underground gas distribution pipes are prone to corrosion due to their proximity to the earth. To avoid damage, steel pipelines need to be cathodically protected. GIS technology provides companies with a visual display showing which pipe segments are covered by cathodic protection and which are not.
Case study: Mahanagar Gas Limited
Mahanagar Gas Limited (MGL) began the adoption of GIS technology in 2002 with the GE Smallworld 3.2.1 system. It had seven user licences – one developer, three edit and three read only – which were considered adequate to handle the business at the time. The system was primarily used for the porting of “as-laid” drawings. However, MGL started encountering limitations since the implementation of the software was on a small scale. As MGL’s pipeline network reached about 3,000 km, the company faced several issues such as unavailability of a sufficient number of drawings and the obsolescence of existing ones.
Thus, the need to devise a more robust system was felt in order to make the company’s pipeline network visually available to people. In addition, MGL wanted to use GIS technology on a daily basis, which would offer various functionalities such as identification of different assets, tracing of the pipeline network, detection of the shortest path, valve closure analysis, nearest locators and gas leak data. For this, MGL enlisted the help of an external organisation, and followed an elaborate and transparent process that involved competitive bidding. In 2010, MGL completed the implementation of Smallworld 4.1.2 with gas distribution office. The software was upgraded to Smallworld 4.3 in September 2013.
MGL’s entire pipeline network and all the critical equipment installations are mapped in the GIS software. As of June 2014, the number of GIS users in MGL was close to 200. MGL also has maintenance and support contracts in place. It updates the base map, landbase, on a quarterly basis. In order to maintain the effectiveness of the software for users, MGL regularly conducts user satisfaction surveys and knowledge quizzes.
With the aim of providing GIS technology outside the office as well, MGL has introduced mobile solutions. The company collaborated with local vendors to develop an Android-based mobile application. It has been made available to all users, and MGL is currently implementing an upgraded version of the mobile GIS – myWorld.
As part of GIS solutions, MGL provides additional facilities such as gas outage analysis, generic raster imports, customer import modules and AutoCAD imports in the internal world. In addition, the company maintains hyperlinked records, which provide users with documents such as test certificates and commissioning reports, related to the laying of pipelines. Further, in order to make the GIS application more user friendly, MGL has enhanced the look of the software interface.
MGL is also making use of a differential global positioning system to capture data during the pipeline laying process. By capturing the data in a georeference environment using a handheld, and then porting it directly into the GIS system, the company avoids the use of hard-copy maps altogether. In order to cater to disaster management needs, MGL is in the process of providing GIS technology to its emergency vans through mobile tabs. For patrolmen, MGL has promoted the use of gadgets that can be attached to the handlebar of a bike, so that the informed patrolmen can reach the location on the pipeline network that requires immediate attention.
Key risks in GIS implementation
While successfully implementing GIS technology offers numerous advantages, CGD companies face several risks in doing so. Of these, the biggest challenge is the availability of network records. Hard-copy drawings of the network need to be available and in good condition for them to be incorporated into GIS. Additionally, the base maps need to be accurate to reflect the real situation of the network. Another challenge that companies face is in providing training to their employees for the use of the GIS software efficiently. Moreover, the software should be readily available and accessible to people. Notably, companies are currently bound by the number of login IDs and machines. Further, it is critical for utilities to form a good relationship with the vendor in order to find a suitable solution to any problem.
A robust asset management practice is the key to running CGD utilities efficiently. Physical assets dominate the balance sheets of most utility companies, and data deficiencies have often undermined asset management processes. The use of GIS will improve the data quality management process, assist in quick identification of issues, and support their resolution. In the past few years, the number of CGD companies adopting GIS technology has increased. For instance, GAIL Gas Limited implemented a web-based GIS during 2013-14 for Dewas city (Madhya Pradesh) on a pilot basis. Given the complex nature of the CGD business and the competitive environment of the segment, GIS adoption will serve gas utilities well in improving the efficiency of their operations. n
Based on a presentation by Naveen Gupta, General Manager, Engineering & Planning and GIS, Mahanagar Gas Limited, at an India Infrastructure conference