Surviving in a Changing World Means Being Better Prepared

Today’s utilities face tougher challenges than ever. Government-ordered deregulation; microscopic scrutiny by the public, other stakeholders and the media; growing regulatory demands to improve service levels; high equipment replacement and maintenance costs; and densely populated urban centers with heavily burdened infrastructures are the usual suspects.

Global weather patterns are also changing with bigger, more violent, and further reaching storms slamming communities more frequently and randomly. On top of this are calamities such as earthquakes, terrorist attacks and fires that can strike with any degree of ferocity and without warning. A service provider must have a lightning-fast response in place to contain damage and restore service, safety and stability as efficiently as possible to the people it serves. Add to this financial penalties for underperformance during outages and it’s easy to see why utilities are desperate for new solutions to help weather any type of storm.

It’s estimated the cost of natural disasters alone to the economy of the United States has averaged $8 billion per year over the last 30 years. Preparedness for service suspension is crucial to distribution utilities.

Outages so large as to exhaust the physical resources of utilities are becoming more common. Nothing is worse for a utility than the realization it can’t get the power back on because it doesn’t have enough field crews or equipment—a fact generally not discovered until the restoration process is well under way, leaving utilities scrambling to find outside help to meet their restoration goals. When help is identified and available, big questions arise: How can it be made to work efficiently, and how can all of these extra resources be managed while keeping costs under control? Utilities must invest in technology that will improve damage assessment, internal and external resource management, and communications.

The solution lies in the use of real-time, Web-based advanced programmed intelligence and robust algorithms designed as an add-on to interface with any users’ installed OMS/client server installation without necessitating costly replacement of embedded systems.

Sophisticated software can make an enormous difference during disaster recovery by identifying mutual aid from other sources and providing the complex procedural and logistical support needed to effectively manage it. This would include successful integration of foreign crews and equipment into the requesting utility’s operations infrastructure as well as coordination of lodgings, meals and additional contract services to support incoming help. No matter the size of the restoration effort, proper use of information is critical, so activities must be tracked and reports generated for internal and external agencies such as police, medical, media, customers, shareholders and government departments.

Many utilities today are faced with reducing internal resources to improve bottom-line performance and are often left with large numbers of staff without any real storm or crisis experience. To eliminate potentially costly mistakes made during “on-the-job” training, new software should allow personnel to take part in “what if” scenarios prior to the occurrence of actual events. This will build confidence and aid in split-second, even lifesaving, decision-making.

In the likely event security becomes an issue during an outage, utilities must have the ability to establish Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) to connect with local emergency services, law enforcement, and other key municipal, state, and/or federal agencies that can log into an EOC liaison area and access updated requests made by the utility. This includes current restoration status and auto-scheduling to assist the relative agencies in deployment of their own specific resources. Reciprocally, it allows the EOC to notify the utility of security and public safety considerations such as roadblocks, collapsed buildings, toxic buildups, fire and flood potential etc., all of which can be plotted to map displays for a “bird’s-eye-view” of the service territory. As sectors become secured, the information is relayed to the EOC to allow operators to track progress right on their computer screens. With the many coinciding events taking place during an outage, operatives can record and replay any activity to help in decision-making anywhere within the affected areas.

Restoration following major outages will continue to place enormous demands on utility operations, but modern technology can help manage the restoration process. Being informed and prepared for the worst can go a long way toward caring for our future.

Iain Ritchie is senior vice president of special projects and head of North American operations for LeT Systems. Ritchie has an M.A. in Psychology and M.S. in Information Technology from Glasgow University where he is also completing his Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence.

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