VELCO imports and transmits power to Vermont’s 17 electric-distribution utility companies. To do this efficiently and accurately, the company needed an enterprise geospatial information system (GIS) that could provide better, faster access to critical operational information about the 700+ miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 55 substations VELCO owns and manages.

The Challenge

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VELCO employees in every department use transmission system maps to better perform their tasks. But when only two GIS professionals knew how to create maps, employees had to request and wait for specific maps. The results were delays, duplicate maps, and unnecessary stress on the GIS team.

Jarrod Harper, VELCO’s business information manager, saw an opportunity to save the company time and money. “Most employees requested fairly simple maps,” says Harper. “We realized that a web-based geospatial system could handle map requests easily and give everyone in the company an up-to-the-minute view of our transmission system.”

In addition to serving up maps, Harper wanted a reliable system that was online constantly. “System disturbances that cause power outages rarely happen during normal working hours. If we lose one of our lines, it could affect thousands of customers,” he adds. “Having a constant online GIS helps get repair crews to the correct location on the transmission line.”

Once VELCO mapped its transmission lines and structures, and Vermont’s base map layers were more accessible via the state‘s GIS data clearinghouse, the Vermont Center for Geographic Information, VELCO was ready to consider GIS options. “We wanted to put GIS on everyone’s desktop—so they didn’t have to wait for maps,” says Harper.

The solution

Already using AutoCAD® to manage its substation and transmission line drawings, VELCO turned to Autodesk reseller Microdesk and Autodesk geospatial software to create its online GIS, and also upgraded to AutoCAD® Map 3D to create and maintain its geospatial database. Autodesk MapGuide then shares that data with more than 140 employees throughout the company. “Our system displays diagrams, photographs, easement information, and more on a simple, easy-to-understand map. Users don’t have to be GIS experts to know exactly what they are looking at,” Harper says.

As an added benefit, the system can use many different types of GIS data in the system without translation through the open source Feature Data Object (FDO) technology embedded in Autodesk, which manages geospatial data in its native format. Not having to translate or convert data reduces the risk of corruption and errors. In the end, it these features make VELCO’s data more secure, accurate, and precise.

Stability is key

For more than 55 years, VELCO has served as Vermont’s transmission reliability resource. In order to restore service quickly in the event of an outage, the company must know the location of the fault and be able to help the crews find it. To achieve this, the GIS must be available and operational at all times.

“One of the most important benefits of our GIS is system stability,” says Harper. “When the state of Vermont relies on our service, we must be ready to serve them at all times. Autodesk technology enables us to be online and in service at all hours.”

One step further for safety

In 2005, VELCO found yet another use for its online GIS that reflects the company’s commitment to safety. A member of a tree-trimming crew was injured in a right-of-way near the Canadian border. With the nearest mobile phone tower in Canada, the crew’s calls were routed to Canadian emergency operators who were unable to respond to incidents in the United States.

As a result of a root cause investigation of the accident, VELCO decided it needed to track its own crews and contractors working on the transmission system more closely. “I suggested using Autodesk MapGuide as a tool to track field crews. I began storyboarding how the tracking system would integrate into our online GIS,” Harper explains. “We handed the storyboard over to Microdesk to develop it.”

From the time of the accident to deployment, VELCO had a fully functional field-crew tracking system in only two and a half months. The final cost was only $14,000 in development. “Such a low-cost tool is practically unheard of,” Harper adds.

VELCO now requires all crews to check in with the Control Center when they arrive at their job sites. Workers provide their name, location, line and structure number or substation name, the number in their crew, and what type of work they will perform. The system operator enters the information into the system, the latitude/longitude coordinates are extracted from the asset database, the town they are located in is automatically queried, and then the information is presented to the system operator in an easy-to-read form.

Now if there is an accident, crews are instructed to call VELCO’s Control Center instead of public emergency call centers. VELCO will then contact emergency agencies and use Autodesk MapGuide to direct help to the crew’s location. “To improve Control Center efficiency in protecting crew safety, we created our own emergency number. If a distress call comes in on that number, there is a distinct, loud alert that we treat as an emergency,” Harper adds. “We have not had another accident since 2005, but we are prepared in case we do.”

The result

While it is difficult for VELCO to quantify the time saved using its Autodesk GIS, Harper estimates he and his colleagues save hundreds of hours each year using the system. “Now, users can create very specific maps on their own schedule. They have the information exactly when they need it to complete a task, which saves a tremendous amount of time.”

More importantly, the company is better able to protect our employees, members of the community and industry partners.

Collaborative expansion

In keeping with its role as a reliability resource, VELCO plans to share access to this system with external stakeholders, such as state agencies, distribution utilities, and Vermont citizens.

Plans also call for a general site for public use, enabling VELCO to share GIS data, non-confidential transmission system information, and project specifications with its neighbors. “When we propose a new transmission line or substation project, citizens will be able to go online and see if it will be near them,” Harper explains.

To watch a video on the collaboration between VELCO and MicroDesk, click here.