Fans of the 1960s television series “Star Trek” remember the turbolift doors parting, and a crew member striding onto the ship’s bridge. Each time those doors “automatically” opened and closed, stagehands were working ropes and pulleys to make it happen. Securing and mobilizing resources for restoration isn’t unlike that Star Trek stagecraft. Storm center personnel and contractor leadership (i.e., utility service providers) know all too well the behind-the-scenes, hands-on work of setting up a successful, safe restoration. What if the process — or at least the slow-moving, error-prone manual part of it — worked automatically?
Looking at today’s manual requests for help
When utility managers need resources, they turn to phone, email and/or web conferencing to request, allocate and commit crews and equipment. Across the U.S., the process is similar — impacted utilities obtain the resources for a safe, efficient restoration. As resource-sharing and crew-building unfold, there are additional calls or emails. Managers finalize requests and confirm responses between utilities and utility service providers. What a utility or USP commits and what a requesting utility gets often creates challenges and more calls, emails and data entry.
A utility storm center manager may request 100 lineworkers. But until they arrive, or a manager receives a roster, there’s usually no view into the numbers and mix of skills and equipment. Having the roster allows the utility to plan work, provide lodging and meals, and assign work. Let’s say the request for 100 lineworkers nets 85 linemen and 15 support staff. The staging site where the utility directs them to go for onboarding would inform the storm center manager of the shortfall in lineworkers; her team would scramble to reallocate work planned for 100 lineworkers. Alternatively, a request for 100 lineworkers might see 150 linemen and 15 support staff arrive. Now the storm center can either release the extra resources or race to find work for the extra crews as well as fuel, lodging and meals. Meanwhile, the 50 extra lineworkers wait for their assignment and lodging. As the size of the outage grows, the challenges multiply.
Once USP crews arrive on the requesting utility’s property, utility supervisors need to track the progress of their work and log their hours. Let’s say there’s a contract foreman and crew working an outage case, but they don’t have any company personnel on site to coordinate their efforts. Typically, the utility won’t know the foreman’s actual time of restoration until the crew completes their job and returns to the staging center at day’s end or a utility manager calls them.
If utilities and contractors collaborated online to request, track, share, and update resources in real-time — especially as staff and equipment challenges pop up — they could shorten an outage and save employees hours of administrative time.
Building a portal of resources
One Midwest investor-owned utility is collaborating in an automated way with its contractors. Last year, the utility launched an online portal that brings together the utility’s storm response team with nearly 100 energy contractor companies that supply crews for power restoration. Since launching the portal, the utility has electronically made and filled tens of thousands of requests for contract crews. This has expedited restoration, eliminated data-entry errors and sped up reconciliation and payment of invoices.
With the resource portal the Midwest-based utility put in place, the impacted utility still turns to its mutual assistance groups. The company makes a request for resources, and the responding utilities and contractors feed their available crews into the portal. The utility and its contractors can view where all their resources are, respond to requests, input information about crews, pre-build crews and even swap crew members in the event a worker with a particular skill is needed elsewhere or becomes sick. Since updates happen electronically, once the portal displays the crew and equipment data, the managers can assign work, secure lodging and meals, and prepare for onboarding. If a contractor has to make an equipment or personnel change, the portal immediately updates the utility. Instead of hours-long exchanges to build crews, rosters take shape right away and managers assign work within 10 minutes of receiving responses.
The scale of the problem
Data shows that a utility with one million customer outages can require, on average, 3,200 resources. In my experience, a large utility working a moderately sized event can soak up the equivalent of six person-days handling and allocating requests for resources. And then come the delays in reconciling invoices to pay contractors. A utility can take, on average, two to three weeks to gather data by hand after an event and begin the review of invoices, accounting, processing and, finally, issuing a check. It’s not just utility company’s facing these hurdles, either. A top manager at a utility contractor company recently said he was spending an entire week with his team reconciling invoices for a storm restoration.
The requirements for funding or rate relief during significant events can also be a slow process taking hours to collect data, process invoices, complete forms, and more. The sooner a utility completes the work the sooner they can file. For municipalities and co-ops with manual processes, managers will take two to three months to collect, prepare and submit documents that will stand up to investigation and testimony for FEMA funding. Imagine the money lost on work that’s unverifiable. Some contractors peg the hourly rate including equipment and overhead at $200 per hour per lineworker. If a utility automates invoicing, then managers can speed up the process for rate recovery. To avoid losing that money, or a rate request, utilities need to automate how they manage resources behind the curtains.
To paraphrase Capt. Kirk, it’s time for all utilities and contractors to boldly go where one utility and its contractors have gone.
Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operations, Product and Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.