Automation Separates the Successes from the Failures

Steven Brown, editor in chief

“The success or failure of utility companies is measured by their efficient handling of outage situations i.e., restoring services with minimum downtime.”

That’s the thesis of the newly released “Report on emergency restoration practices followed by utility companies in North America” from Macrosoft Inc. (not to be confused with Microsoft Corp., or Microhard Systems Inc.-not that you would). The company surveyed more than 100 storm personnel from 45 different North American utilities with the intent of obtaining valid data on storm statistics, best practices, use of automated vs. manual resource management solutions, and challenges faced by utilities during restoration work. The report is available for download at www.macrosoftinc.com.

Out of the companies Macrosoft surveyed, only 45 percent responded that they were using a fully automated system to manage resources during restoration efforts. Twenty-nine percent use a “manual approach” (including individual spreadsheets, whiteboards and forms), and another 26 percent use a combination of automated and manual systems. Of those using manual systems, their chief concerns are data integrity, complaints about data entry, and a lack of auditing and reporting features.

The report doesn’t come right out and make a connection between its thesis statement about “success or failure” and this manual vs. automatic outage restoration issue, but I’m willing to bet that the 29 percent of utilities who still manage restoration resources the old-fashioned way aren’t handling outages nearly as efficiently as the 45 percent who use automated systems. Those 29 percenters may not be out-and-out failures, but I know I’d rather live within the territory of one of those 45 percent of utilities that have entered the electronic age.

This issue’s cover story focuses on the restoration and rebuilding effort still under way at Mississippi Power in the wake of last year’s Hurricane Katrina. All of Mississippi Power’s 195,000 customers lost power during the hurricane, and a decent-sized hunk of the utility’s infrastructure was wiped completely off the map. Initial estimates were that some customers might be without power for up to four weeks. Mississippi Power had its customers’ lights back on in 12 days.

And guess what? They weren’t using pencils and sticky notes to manage the effort. Mississippi Power is a highly automated outfit when it comes to outage restoration. They use a modern geographic information system and trouble call management system. They have mobile computers in their technician’s vehicles, and they send work orders to the field electronically. When they were struck by the worst storm in their history, managers at Mississippi Power realized that as important as it was to rebuild the physical power infrastructure, it was just as important to rebuild the data model that the company’s automated systems depend on.

Our cover story focuses mainly on Mississippi Power’s efforts to get its data back in shape. After the company replaced thousands of poles and transformers, more than 300,000 data points had to be inventoried to ensure the utility had good data to run its modern systems. The guys that have the foresight to focus on their data model while standing in two feet of water, removing trees from their roofs and working around the clock to restore power to customers are the ones running a successful utility in my book.

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