Improving the Smart Grid’s IQ

By Mitch McLeod, ARCOS, Inc.

Imagine opening Microsoft Outlook to write a critical e-mail to your customers. You’re pressed for time. You quickly type your note. You hit send. Before your e-mail flies, though, up pops the spell checker highlighting a mistake. You choose the correct spelling of the word from a list and tap the change button. To your surprise, Outlook takes up to an hour to correct the word and e-mail your note.

It’s not unlike where we are with today’s smart grid. We can identify grid problems such as an outage. But most utility companies struggle through an antiquated, manual process to get line personnel assembled and sent to the scene of trouble. This process affects the smart grid’s IQ.

The grid’s growing complexity includes things such as optical current sensors that instantly tell utilities a fault has happened and where it’s located. But identifying a problem doesn’t fix it.

If the smart grid is to help customers open a window to what’s causing an outage and how long it will take to resolve, then utilities should focus on compressing restoration time like never before. Some utilities are taking bold steps. Xcel Energy’s SmartGridCity, a real-world lab where the utility explores smart grid tools in Boulder, Colo., helps Xcel decide how to bring field-tested, smart-grid technology into its business operations to net more efficiency.

But restoration time, especially after normal business hours, often hinges on how quickly a company can contact its available line personnel, assemble a crew and get them to the outage. For many U.S. utility companies, that process is still manual. One northeastern utility company that for many years relied on an outmoded crew callout process for after-hours emergencies said its manual process took, on average, nearly 80 minutes to assemble and dispatch a crew. That’s typical for most utilities.

Prolonged outages financially drain electric utility companies, investors and consumers.

Without a smart system for managing resources and crew callout, a utility facing an after-hours outage calls a supervisor at home, sometimes in the middle of the night. The supervisor grabs a cell phone and a paper list of available line personnel and begins calling each to assemble a crew. It often takes one or two hours to reach available workers who accept the assignment. Compounding the callout process are union rules dictating which linemen can be called and in what order. If a sleep-deprived supervisor runs afoul of those rules, the union can file a grievance.

For a utility relying on a manual callout- and resource-management process, grievances such as these can tally more than $100,000 per year. Even when the process runs smoothly, a utility still must pay wait time–overtime–for each member of the crew who’s accepted a callout until the final member of a crew agrees to work the situation. The average utility company spends nearly $500,000 annually in paid wait time.

Management can avoid these costs. It takes an investment to implement callout technologies that deliver reporting tools that automatically call hundreds or thousands of line personnel in a few seconds, while factoring into each call the complex union rules and labor agreements for overtime and rest.

According to the Department of Energy, today’s electricity system is 99.97 percent reliable. But when electricity flow to U.S. customers is cut off, it costs cumulatively at least $150 billion each year. If we could shave 10 percent off restoration time with better callout and resource management technology, what would it mean for the bottom line?

Sometimes the size of the grid blinds us. Behind all the technology are utility professionals. These engineers, line personnel and others keep the grid and its 300,000 miles of transmission lines operating. The smart grid will be brighter if we have more visibility into the work of the people running and repairing the grid.

Mitch McLeod is president and CEO of ARCOS Inc., which makes crew callout and resource management software for the U.S. utility industry. Reach him at mitchm@rostermonster.com.

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