Homer Electric Association will begin installing a new tracking system that will help improve its response time to, among other things, power outages.
The utility cooperative will begin using a geographical information system (GIS) to quickly locate electrical equipment identified as needing work. This will cut down on the time of regular maintenance and emergency repairs. HEA intends to begin operating the system sometime next spring.
A GIS is a database that combines layers of information about a place, represented graphically, and ties data about that specific location to the graphic object within the database. So when mechanical work needs to be done on any HEA equipment, the system will provide the equipment's location, function and estimated cost for repair or replacement.
Crews have begun to inventory all HEA assets, starting in the Bernice Lake area, to have information on each device to add to the GIS database. HEA spokesperson Joe Gallagher said the inventory project will systematically work to cover the rest of the cooperative's service area by November.
Technicians will be trained to use computers that will integrate automated tasks and electronic map viewing into the HEA system. On an as-needed basis, certain crew members gradually will be equipped with portable computers capable of these functions. Gallagher said this will make the transition smoother and prevent any delays while technicians are learning the procedure.
Melodee Bassett, HEA's technical services and graphic information specialist, said the new system, which will integrate with an interactive voice response system and an outage management system already in use, should be operative in a year's time.
"Typical implementation for GIS is three to five years," she said. "We're not on the cutting edge, so we're not reinventing the wheel. And we already have things done other utilities didn't have."
Gallagher said HEA is starting from scratch and learning from other power companies that have previously used GIS. He said these lessons offered insight to costs, what attributes to collect from each device inventoried and the best implementation process.
More work will have to be done, however, to improve connections from Homer equipment to the database, which will be housed in HEA's Kenai office, Bassett said. The fiber-optic cable linking the cooperative's hubs won't be able to handle all the additional information as is, she said.
"It's a little bit slower than we optimally desired," Bassett said. "Information is always increasing. We're going to have to upgrade the fiber-optic line's bandwidth to accommodate the additional information. "
Gallagher estimated the GIS project will cost the cooperative more than $1 million, and he said the project will have cost benefits for HEA that will recoup the expense invested.
"This will save us money by reducing outage duration and numbers, cutting back on time spent on response, developing a better maintenance process, increasing employee efficiency, increasing functionality of tracking revenue assets ... the list goes on," he said.
"Payback for this project, in increased efficiency, is projected within five years."
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