How can a utility improve operations, reduce costs, and enhance customer satisfaction?

Dr. Deepak Divan, Softswitching Technologies

Today’s competitive environment drives utilities to find new ways to:

“- Increase customer satisfaction through improved service reliability and quality,
“- Reduce operating costs while improving system performance,
“- Realize new revenue opportunities.

Many key daily utility processes require timely, easy to use information from the distribution network. Examples include:

“- A major C&I customer experiences a power or process interruption; they complain (sometimes bitterly) and may even file a downtime claim (or look for another supplier);
“- A residential customer experiences a power outage and calls to report it;
“- A fault occurs on the distribution grid, the operations engineer needs to locate and diagnose fault;
“- Senior management requires a real-time impact report of an ice storm;
“- An operations engineer wants historical reliability data for a specific distribution feeder;
“- A planning engineer wants baseline reliability data for different regions in a service territory.

Proactive (vs. reactive) utility management are seeking ways to aggressively move from old challenges to new opportunities.

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Several examples of utility business processes that are driven by events that happen at customer facilities or on the utility distribution network are highlighted in the following table.

Yet, the current process of coupling real-time information from the grid to these business processes is extremely inefficient. Utilities could improve operations and customer support dramatically if grid information was available 24×7.

In today’s wired world, the average customer, who is increasingly technology savvy, finds it hard to comprehend that the utility does not have continuous knowledge of the status of one of its primary and most expensive assets–the T&D network.

For instance, the first indication that a major US utility has that one of its 12,000 large C&I customers has a problem is when the customer calls the account representative or the call service center! Possibly an even bigger problem is the fact that when the customer calls, the utility has no knowledge of the event, its cause, or actions to be taken to resolve the issue. Finally, it could take 2-16 weeks to complete an effort to understand the customer’s problem, very expensive and frustrating for both the utility and the customer. Unfortunately, this experience is not an exception–rather, it is the rule.

Recent advances in low cost microprocessors, communications, powerful database systems, and the Internet now enable a highly affordable intelligent, real-time power grid monitoring capability that is totally controllable by the utility; creating a real-time grid information resource for the utility.

Prompt notification by email, pager, or phone of major grid events, and immediate, web-based access to detailed information on these events including power quality disturbances, can dramatically enhance the utility’s ability to support C&I customers, as well as to more effectively manage their response to outages on the system.

Access to information on event details, including waveforms and RMS voltage data associated with the events, allows root cause analysis and diagnosis, fast location of faults and the possibility of preventing major failures through early intervention.

Finally, the database associated with the grid information resource can provide valuable benchmarking, reliability performance assessment, and can enable new service level agreements with customers based on a differentiated level of quality and reliability.

Utilities may have some limited data available through their SCADA or AMR systems on disturbances and outages. However, due to security and control issues, most utilities do not provide wide access to their SCADA or financial systems, particularly on a real-time basis. Further, with the high cost of SCADA monitoring, it is impractical to extend the system to monitor the distribution grid and feeders. The old alternatives are inadequate.

Utilities clearly need to have better knowledge (and thus control) of the T&D network, a key asset. The ability to reduce the amount of time needed to support a major C&I customer from 2-16 weeks to under a 1/2 hour can dramatically enhance the level of customer satisfaction, increasing customer loyalty and opening up avenues for new revenue streams from these existing customers.

From a strategic perspective, improving operations and asset utilization while reducing costs and creating new revenue streams, is absolutely key to sustaining and enhancing a utility’s competitive position.

Divan, Fellow IEEE, is president & CEO of SoftSwitching Technologies. He can be reached at 608-662-7200 or ddivan@ softswitch.com. For more information about the company, visit www.softswitch.com.

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