Smart Grid Improves Mobile Workforce Efficiencies

By Denise Barton, Tropos

Most utility field workers have limited real-time data communications available to them in the field. They check-in at the beginning of their shifts and receive work orders and schedules. Some receive them on paper while others have a laptop in their vehicle and can download/upload data when they are at the office. Few have a virtual office whereby they can access the same information in the field as from the office. In some cases, records, manuals, maps and other documents are not available digitally. In other cases, the utility has not yet invested in workforce automation tools. Over the next five to 10 years, however, mobile utility workers’ world is likely to change, bringing new applications and efficiencies to their jobs while improving overall customer service. 

24/7 Communications 

When someone hears the words smart grid, he or she might think about efficiencies associated with power delivery, but what about utility field workers? While not an integral part of the smart grid infrastructure, they are key contributors in its operation. As power devices across a utility’s coverage area become intelligent and can be monitored, accessed and controlled centrally, what changes can field workers expect to how they work? Similar to the 24/7 communications available to grid devices, field workers will likely also have 24/7 communications available to them from the field—and not just at substations.

Some possibilities include:

Work order management: Work orders can be updated and scheduling changes made in real-time without a truck roll back to the office, saving time (not to mention reducing gas use) and allowing them to move on to the next job. Reports and data can be uploaded from the field rather than workers taking time at the end of the day to return to the office and enter information.

Asset management: Geographic information systems (GIS) and asset tags can be attached to every utility asset (fixed and mobile using GPS) to enable central visibility and monitoring. Field workers could access asset maps to locate devices; they could review records about past maintenance and repairs; and documentation about the assets itself could be accessed—all from the field, reducing repair and maintenance time and possibly costly errors. If an outage occurs, workers could immediately identify the location and which device failed, speeding problem resolution.

Inventory management: Access to “spares” inventory databases allows workers to quickly locate a needed part from the field and identify where it’s stored, reducing downtime or repair time.

A few applications field workers can access in the future will help make them more efficient. It’s likely that the communications devices they’ll use in the field will be off-the-shelf ruggedized computers (handheld and in-vehicle mounted) with standards-based communications.

For the communications network, utilities have the opportunity to leverage the same high-performance and secure wireless broadband network used for other smart grid applications across their coverage area. 

Real World Deployment 

Burbank Water & Power (BWP) began installing the first phase of its smart grid vision last year. The initial phase includes AMI for its 51,000 power customers; a meter data management (MDM) system; and a wireless broadband network across its service territory. Initially, the communications network provides backhaul for the metering LAN, but BWP plans to utilize it for other utility applications such as distribution automation, energy demand response, distributed generation and mobile data communications for the utility’s field workforce. Other municipal departments such as police, fire and emergency services also are interested in using the network for mobile field worker communications.

Bruce Hamer, BWP’s smart grid program manager, said the utility is in the process of equipping 20 water, power and commercial service vehicles with mobile routers and in-vehicle computers to deploy mobile work order management applications.

“The ability of our mobile workers to have access to the same resources in the field as from the office will increase operational efficiencies and our level of customer service,” Hamer said.

In addition, Hamer expects providing real-time communications to the field workforce will also help in outage management by allowing personnel to quickly pinpoint the location and source of outages, speeding repair time.

The drive for a smarter grid will enable a myriad of technologies to perform many important tasks. Wireless communications networks will allow utilities to see immediate results by economically leveraging the same high-performance and secure wireless networks used for other smart grid applications across their coverage areas. Smart grid is bringing many changes to the utility—including the mobile utility workforce.

Denise Barton is marketing director with Tropos. 

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