Keeping the lights on: Technology speeds service restoration

by Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

Here’s a bit of irony: I’d planned to write about how electric utilities are using advanced metering and other technologies to deliver better customer service by speeding up restoration when power is out. And, just as I sat down at the computer, the power went out. Right then, I knew my story’s premise was spot on: Improving restoration times does, indeed, translate into better customer service from electric utilities.

Because I write about utilities, I understood that my electricity provider doesn’t know I’m out of service unless I call to report it. I did that about one minute into what turned out to be an hour-long outage. Then I called a few neighbors on different transformers to get them to call it in, too. I wanted as many people as possible to make their reports so that my utility could triangulate the trouble and get it fixed ASAP.

If my utility had advanced metering, I wouldn’t have had to worry about engineers finding the boundaries of the outage quickly without customers’ calls.

Connected with customers

Some advanced metering systems offer up “last-gasp” messages, where the meters, which are connected to the utility via some sort of communications network, send in their own outage reports. Some are configured in such a way that utility engineers can “ping” the meter to see if it’s energized.

The team at Mid-Carolina Electric Co-op (MCEC) can ping their 50,000 customer meters to pinpoint trouble spots or verify if outage calls require a technician’s visit. “There are any number of reasons we can get an erroneous telephone report about an outage,” notes Lee Ayers, system engineer for MCEC. He says it’s not uncommon for people to hit wrong buttons when interacting with the interactive voice response system, and it is IVR calls that feed the utility’s outage-management system.

Now, however, so do data from the advanced meters. “We use pings to qualify events so that we can prioritize how we dispatch field crews to effect restoration,” Ayers says.

Setting smart priorities

Because the system uses a power-line communication technology, utility engineers know what transformer feeds a customer, as well as how each transformer is fed by phasing, feeder circuit and substation. So, pinging meters helps utility managers identify outage boundaries and what device has gone awry.

That, in turn, helps utility workers know how many service interruptions they’re dealing with. “If we have 6,000 people out because of a single event, we don’t need a lot of field forces,” Ayers explains.

But, unfortunately, there are outages like those caused by a recent storm, in which workers scrambled to restore power for nearly 12,000 customers knocked out of service by 300 different events.

What happened? The community was battered by 65-mile-an-hour winds sustained over a four-hour period. “We have a lot of pine trees in this part of the country,” says Keith Sturkie, MCEC’s vice president of information technology. “We had broken poles, all kinds of infrastructure coming down.”

According to Sturkie, restoration to most sites was completed in 36 hours. “Without the systems we have in place, it would have taken at least half again — if not twice as long — to get peoples’ services restored,” he adds.

Systems integration is critical to making outage-management automation work. Sturkie is drawing in data from an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) by Aclara, an outage-management system originally installed in 2002, plus the customer information system. Oracle’s Utilities Network Management System did the heavy lifting in the integration, he says.

Enlightening data

Once utilities marry AMI, CIS and outage-management systems together, there are all kinds of service improvements they can offer on the outage front. A big one is the elimination of unnecessary service calls. Industry figures place as many as 40 percent of single lights-out reports as problems on the customer’s side of the meter. Resolving customer calls with a ping instead of a visit saves plenty of cash.

Just ask PECO, a Philadelphia-based utility. There, engineers tapped their metering system to skip truck rolls on more than 2,750 jobs in one nine-month period. Across the continent, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric has estimated it makes some 48,000 single-site, no-outage trips annually. With full deployment of AMI, the utility may save $4.3 million by eliminating unneeded truck dispatch.

Those meter pings save customers time and trouble, too. Through them, utilities can give customers quick guidance when its time to call an electrician.

And, during actual service interruptions, utilities can ping meters to verify restoration has, indeed, occurred. That way, crews can take care of isolated outages immediately rather than being called back after driving miles down the road.

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 15 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to Utilimetrics News, the monthly publication of Utilimetrics (formerly the Automatic Meter Reading Association).

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