Communication Technology, Distribution Automation / Substation Automation, Executive Insight, Outage Management

COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to test our preparedness

The COVID-19 crisis has brought into high relief the importance of critical infrastructure such as healthcare, but as well, supporting infrastructure such as communications and power. Fortunately, most of the systems held up under the initial strain, but we are far from being out of the woods. As we look to the future, both near and distant, there are a number of lessons learned and investments that need to be made in order to keep utilities safe and our critical power resources available. Many of these investments are in the area of digital transformation.

One of the big lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic was how important our infrastructure is to managing in a crisis. Our electrical systems and our communications networks were very important to how we were able to keep operating under the health restrictions. But, despite this, are we as ready as we can be for the next crisis? Are we really prepared for threats such as climate change and cybersecurity? Are we replacing our aging infrastructure fast enough and innovating for the future?

While utilities have spent a decade responding to SAIDI and SAIFI with capital improvements in distribution automation, they must look to extend and utilize these same communications technologies in new ways, such as asset health tracking, process automation and even monitoring the health and safety of crew members. In the near term, the utilities sector has had to adjust its operations and build in safe social distancing. Fortunately, in many operational areas, especially field operations, social distancing isn’t a difficult issue to solve, as there are many field technicians that are now on the road alone, which raises other issues about how we continue to monitor and ensure their safety.

In generation plants and central administration facilities, issues around social distancing are similar to other parts of the economy, such as offices and factories. Some of the changes that are required are procedural: varying break and lunch times to avoid crowding and make social distancing possible, re-arranging work areas, putting barriers in place and ensuring appropriate PPE is worn. Beyond these measures, rising to the challenge of COVID-19 will also mean accelerating digital adoption trends that were already gathering steam before the virus arrived.

For example, although many utilities office workers could work remotely from home, the sector as a whole has been cautious in the past about remote work because of security concerns. However, the pandemic is forcing some utilities to reconsider their policies around remote work and tackle the cybersecurity issues head on, for instance, by using their private LTE network to connect workers.

Outside of the office, trends such as automation and robotics will now help in substations and low-voltage lines, which will reduce truck rolls and residential visits. Situational awareness technologies using temperature sensors, cameras and geo-location will also find a new role, as will new smarter PPE. All of these technologies will introduce an increased reliance on communications, AI and machine learning, as well as industrial IoT.

Remote operations are already a big trend in utilities. While situations still exist where utility workers must be present, the ability to read meters remotely coupled with a higher level of communication enabled by private wireless, such as LTE, could bring about new opportunities. For example, the pandemic quarantine creates a new need for consistent power at home for households now relying on medical equipment. They can benefit from a higher level of response, especially in rural areas. New services extending behind the meter and into energy management could create revenue streams and meet customer needs, without the need to send personnel on premise.

Another example is maintaining DER assets or microgrids for industrial or essential users like hospitals or plant facilities. Though the systems and technologies do exist for this, the need for a low latency, high bandwidth wireless system, such as LTE or 5G, makes this automation more feasible and again, enables new service opportunities for power utilities.   

Situational awareness is often stressed as important during safety events and crisis situations. It is a critical capability for first responders, who are currently adopting LTE/5G wireless for many of their emergency networks. But it is also critical for power utilities in both urban and rural areas.  While crews often work together in groups of three or more in the utility space, COVID-19 is pressuring social distancing measures and often personnel may work alone. While procedures are typically in place to ensure worker safety, location tracking and understanding the timeframes of tasks can alleviate many on-the-job hazards. 

Using cameras and sensors, it is now possible from a central operational control perspective, to always be aware of where workers are and where hazards exist. Using smart PPE, for example, it is already feasible for wearable sensors to detect the presence of safety threats and alert the worker. By using wireless technology to communicate with central operations software, it is now possible that everyone in proximity can be alerted and for response teams to be deployed.

With 5G, these technologies can also be combined with very precise geolocation capabilities to monitor the position of workers in territory, for example.  Currently, in some jurisdictions, there are discussions between public health authorities, employers and unions around the use of tracking software. Depending on how those discussions are resolved, it is also possible for this technology to allow public health authorities to do forensic analysis in the event of an outbreak.

Along with reliable, low latency wireless connectivity, software analytics using AI and machine learning have a big role to play in the emerging Industry 4.0 world. There is an enormous amount of data that can be generated by IoT sensors as well as CCTV. The software is sophisticated enough today, to be able, for instance, to analyze video footage and alert personnel of a potential safety incident in a large crowded space.

COVID-19 is a wake-up call on a number of fronts, not just healthcare. It has highlighted opportunities in many of the systems that we’ve previously taken for granted.  First and foremost, a power utility’s focus is to keep reliable power flowing to the consumers who depend on it — this means society as a whole. But the highest priority within the utility workspace is the safety of the worker and the consumer. Utilities have a critical role to play in the continuity of society in times like these. Fortunately, there are technologies like LTE/5G available that can help make that possible while keeping workers safe.