Information is becoming an increasingly important commodity for electric utilities. Greater knowledge of transmission and distribution line conditions and customer-use patterns will advance the grid. Being able to communicate that information to and from line workers in the field is becoming just as crucial, and a new generation of devices is coming online now to help meet that need.

Smart grid technologies include sensors and controllers on lines, transformers, meters and other utility equipment, which will give utilities insight into exactly where problems are occurring or may soon occur. Getting that information back out to field personnel quickly is an important second step in realizing the efficiencies and service improvements this new intelligence enables. It’s not useful to know that a particular line is overheating if you don’t know the locations or capabilities of crews in the area or if personnel can’t access related schematics and other documentation.

Sturdy laptops for field use and handheld devices that can be carried up a pole are among the products now appearing in lineworkers’ trucks to help maximize the smart grid’s potential. While each of these electronic tools has sweet-spot applications, the key to their usefulness lies in software built on a geographic information system (GIS) platform.

“That’s a fundamental technology,” said Tony DiMarco, executive director for global utilities and communications for Huntsville, Ala.-based Intergraph, a leading developer of GIS systems. “It allows presentation of facility assets on a map, and it allows you to take that and mark it up in the field.”

While the GIS technology has been around for some time—e.g., in the GPS systems that help direct line workers from one job to the next—DiMarco said new advances are connecting GIS data across multiple points in a utility’s business.

“It’s become more mainstream; it was previously more departmental,” he said, contrasting GIS applications from five years ago to those of today. “We’re seeing increased integration with workflows and use across many systems. There’s clearly a trend to integrate real-time data with the GIS technology.”

This integration is opening the door to a range of efficiency improvements for utilities, both in how workers get their jobs done and in how materials are managed. Instead of relying on standard push-to-talk cell phones for voice communications, field personnel are equipped with Bluetooth-enabled handheld devices, with displays for viewing schematics while on the pole and capable of transmitting real-time video back to an office for analysis and advice. Office scheduling systems use GIS information to map efficient daily workloads, while outage-management personnel can know which crews are in the vicinity of problem locations.

This data even can feed into inventory management, so workers in a warehouse know how a field-services truck will need to be restocked for the next day as it is pulling in from the current day’s shift. This functionality extends up to highly efficient management of an entire warehouse’s stock.

“We have a utility customer that has 51 parts depots throughout a very large territory,” said Jim Hanson, energy and utility industry director for Motorola’s Industry Solutions Group. “They’ve put wireless local area networks into those locations, with radio-frequency identification and barcode readers. When they get a big delivery into their main warehouse, literally, by the time it gets in the door, they know what’s in there.”

In addition to allowing greater communication between workers and central offices and between workers and databases, handhelds and laptops are communicating with other electronic devices. Product and software developers call it “machine-to-machine” communication. The huge deployment of automated meter-reading infrastructures is just one example of how important these interactions are becoming.

“Now the whole distribution system is automated, down to the individual meter,” said Chris Stern, director of business development for utilities field solutions for Trimble, a Sunnyvale, Calif., developer of GIS-enabled products and software. Installing one of these new meters requires field workers to reconsider their current box of tools, Stern said, because one must have some kind of technology in hand just to activate it.

Full adoption of the smart grid and its related technologies may be a decade or longer away, but successful implementation of the advances now underway will require more than a new generation of tools, some say. It also will require a new generation of workers with the skills needed to use those tools appropriately.

“The fundamental change is the utility field workers are becoming smart grid workers,” Stern said. “You’re taking a former field worker and turning them into a semi-information-technology technician, and instead of 30 percent of your field workers having to learn these things, now it’s 100 percent. That’s a big transition.”

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.