by Eric J. Charette, Intergraph
Weather-related utility power outages are on the rise. Recent studies indicate that electricity outage frequency has increased 125 percent during the past 15 years. Nearly two-thirds of those outages were weather-related. In parallel with the growing number of outages, customer expectations about accessing outage information are growing, too.
Gone are the days of simple customer billing inquiries and service interruption calls. Utility customers expect access to real-time outage information and restoration times though online portals, social media, email and text. They’re making critical decisions based on this information. Utilities often are leery about providing customers in-depth estimated restoration times (ERTs) because providing inaccurate ERTs causes additional customer frustration compared with no communication.
But things are different now. Outage management technologies have matured and consumer needs have changed, prompting many providers to scramble to update their systems and soothe unsatisfied customers. There is a fine balance between what customers want and what utilities are willing to provide during outages.
Utilities can meet customers’ demand for information by implementing an advanced restoration time solution and associated processes. This new approach incorporates real-time conditions such as network damage, field crew availability, storm magnitude, road closures, routing and weather conditions in a multistage process that spans the life cycle of an outage. By using an advanced restoration time solution, utility providers can deliver to customers more accurate estimates and projected and verified restoration times. It also goes beyond just giving customers restoration times. An advanced restoration time approach also is about creating a new customer outage experience that delivers timely information across multiple communication modes.
The Four Stages of Advanced Restoration Time
Providing restoration times based solely on historical records is flawed. It’s not that the historical records aren’t useful or valuable; they just don’t consider all of the real-time conditions that outages create and are updated infrequently.
An advanced restoration time model considers real-time conditions and continually updates records during outages. The model also compartmentalizes restoration times into a four-stage process: estimated restoration time (ERT), projected restoration time (PRT), verified restoration time (VRT) and actual restoration time.
Each stage has its own actions and objectives to make outage restoration times more accurate. This simultaneously informs utility customers of restoration progress (see figure).
1. Estimated restoration time. The first step in an advanced restoration time solution is to automatically modify the historical ERT values based on real-time conditions, such as the number of existing outages and qualified crews. This information then can be provided to customers during initial phone calls. Then, as work volume increases, some outages might remain pending for longer durations before being assigned to restoration crews. Initial ERTs should be reviewed periodically and updated automatically as real-time conditions change within affected service areas.
2. Projected restoration time. The second step in an advanced restoration time solution occurs when the outage is assigned to a crew for evaluation and restoration. By combining travel time with a historical repair time for the outage type, the initial ERT can be updated to a PRT. Some utilities refrain from providing initial ERTs to customers until outages are dispatched, when much more accurate PRTs are known. Calculating PRT values could be complicated further because each work crew might have multiple outages in their queues. Because each outage location is known, the travel time can be calculated and combined with the repair time for each outage. Then, a PRT can be calculated for each outage assigned to an individual crew. As outages are restored, the PRT values for each successive outage can be refined automatically. The travel time calculations are more accurate between outages in a queue with each update. The PRT is most precise once a crew changes its status to en route for that specific order.
3. Verified restoration time. The third step in the advance restoration process is providing VRTs. The most accurate projection of restoration time is when a first responder arrives at the protection device and can assess the downstream damage. The VRT now has the greatest value to customers, and this information should be communicated regardless of any previous communication. The message content may include: the extent of an outage as it has been confirmed by the crew; the cause of an outage; and the VRT. This specifically addresses customers’ demands to know exactly what their utilities know, when they know it.
4. Actual restoration time. After an outage has been repaired, the last step in the advanced restoration time process is to document the outcome. As part of this closure information, a mobile crew records the actual restoration time, which captures the entire duration of the outage. In many present-day solutions, historical ERT tables typically are populated once and never are updated. An advanced restoration time solution records and tracks restoration times for each stage throughout the life cycle of an outage. This automation can create a self-learning process by continuing to update the historical information based on the new data, increasing the accuracy of initial ERTs in future outages.
Creating the New Customer Outage Experience
Only recently have utilities begun to place equal emphasis on the customer outage experience as they have on the restoration process. Utility customers are demanding more access to outage information from providers and various sources.
The need for utility providers to embrace new communication technologies and methodologies to inform their customers about restoration efforts never has been greater. With so many utility consumers’ using mobile devices, text-based notifications to customers’ cell phones is an obvious first step. Creating a new customer experience, however, must go beyond that. Utilities must leverage outage portals, email notifications and social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. They should even create mobile applications that send push notifications to customers with smartphones.
With the data, outage management systems and consumer technology available, all of the components are present to enable the next generation of restoration time. For utilities, it is time to provide customers with the information they expect in a format they want to consume it.
ADVANCED RESTORATION TIME WORK FLOW
As utilities embrace new communication technologies and methods, customer satisfaction likely will increase, as will acceptance of the ever-increasing frequency of outages.
Most of the data for this approach exists already, but it remains unused in the database stores of outage management systems. This methodology does not rely on complicated calculations to produce new historical values but leverages existing information and turns it into an algorithm. The restoration time values are produced according to changing conditions for all four stages in the process and then communicated to customers following the business rules set in the customer communication systems.
With the ability to continually refine restoration time values, the balance of calculating new values and deciding when they should be communicated to customers becomes paramount. The demand for outage information is substantial, but overloading customers with information might have a negative effect on customer outage experiences. Business processes should be defined clearly to indicate when, how often and how many times restoration times will be communicated to customers.
With outage frequencies and energy costs at higher levels than ever before, utilities must embrace new technologies and methodologies to deliver better information to customers. Providing only estimates for restoration time is no longer acceptable, especially when utilities have all of the in-house data they need to produce more accurate restoration times.
An advanced restoration solution and approach is not as onerous as it might seem.
The potential to improve operational efficiency, increase customer service and make historical records more accurate are just the surface benefits.
Advanced restoration time solutions and models could change how state commissions and the utility industry define requirements for meeting acceptable levels of response and performance.
Proactive utilities are exploring and beginning to implement advanced restoration time solutions and methodologies. They are not the norm, but they should be. With the availability of in-house data, the technology to perform the calculations and the rise of mobile and Internet communication, all utilities should start leveraging advanced restoration time solutions and be the change customers want.
Eric J. Charette is technical manager of business development for utilities with Intergraph in the U.S. and serves on the DistribuTECH advisory committee. He has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering with an emphasis in power systems from Michigan Technological University and is a registered professional engineer in Wisconsin and Alabama.