Connecting customer systems with outage management

Roxane Richter, Customer Systems Editor

In disasters, no man-made calamity can match the furious force of Mother Nature. Just ask Dominion Virginia Power, who endured two crippling hurricanes, Dennis in August and Floyd in September, last year alone. Single-handedly and swiftly, Hurricane Floyd wiped out power service to 800,000 customers, almost half of the company’s service to its two million end-users.

Having “run the gauntlet” of disaster outage management, prioritization, work crew dispatch and recovery efforts, Dominion has numerous tales to tell and several “lessons learned” to share with other energy suppliers. But, as the power company tells it, outage management always begins with the same singular element-a call from a customer saying their power is off. That single call sets off a domino-effect chain of events to occur, often spurring an electronic blip of data to run through a myriad of interconnections between the Customer Information System (CIS), Geographical Information System (GIS), work management, materials and mobile dispatch systems. How each of those mission-critical systems interconnect and communicate with each other needs to be efficient, real-time and seamless.

“Our CIS has been integrated and interfaced with our outage management system. A fundamental part of outage management is finding out where customers are geographically and electrically on the electrical distribution system,” explained Jim Claypool, Dominion director of IT business accounts, “Right from the get-go and the lights go out, they call the outage management line that can handle 100,000 calls per hour. The system then correlates exactly where on the electrical distribution system the customer is, then the work management system sets up the work requisitions for field dispatch for repair.”

Keeping the lights on

The approach to the Integration Management Framework solution applies a component-based methodology for resolving the issues of interoperability that often dominate the IT enterprise. In a component-based approach, messaging is the medium that binds all of the enterprise-level applications, irrespective of their platform or architecture.
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Dominion’s outage management system, which the company developed in-house, analyzes, predicts and forecasts what major devices and lines will be affected due to the reported disaster or outage. The company’s outage management is seamlessly interfaced with its GIS and mobile dispatch, which then communicates the status and restoration efforts back to the customer via the CIS system which posts all information in real-time so the customer service representative can update any callers. Customers who report an outage are also given the option of receiving a computer-generated callback when power is restored to the service area.

“In outage management, the largest driver, together with efficiency, is customer service. Regardless of how the information is delivered, it’s the quality of the information-the details on how long the repair will take, the prognosis for repair, etc. that matters in the end.” said Jim Cypert, the executive vice president in the energy and utilities division of Logica, a Lexington, Mass.-based software solution and integration company. “But probably less than half of energy companies have a full distribution system with a mature GIS, work management, outage and materials system integrated with their CIS.”

According to Cypert, one of the biggest trends in piecing together and integrating outage management systems with other mission-critical systems (like CIS and GIS) is the use of an integrated framework approach. (See figure.) As Cypert explains it, this electronic integration methodology is much “like spokes on a wheel,” so as you change out applications, you don’t have to re-do the entire interface to the other applications. “In the past three to four years, we’d have seven to eight interfaces with work management directly to an application, a one-to-one connection. But with our integration management framework, or IMF, approach, it all flows into one central hub for plug and play.”

Considering the ongoing demands from deregulation, performance-based pricing, higher levels of customer service and increasing public awareness, electric utilities today are confronted with an overwhelming amount of economic and social pressure to effectively manage and recover from power outages. Yet in large-scale outage events, utility staffs must think through how to efficiently assign and dispatch crews and repair materials, while fast-footing a non-stop assessment due to changing weather, a domino-effect of failures in systems and networks, lengthier-than-anticipated repair times, plus the constant barrage of customer and media requests for time-of-repair estimations.

Getting the lights back on: Disaster recovery

Though some of the current outage management and outage management-related systems offered by a variety of vendors such as Small World, m3i, ABB, Mincom and Logica, adequately manage most outages, severe outages (hundreds of thousands of power outages) brought on by devastating hurricanes and tornadoes, need extra analytical and prioritization help.

To answer that niche need, Logica is currently designing a solution, called ReSTORE, to manage an outage event by proactively advising utility management what to do, when to do it, what resources are required, and where they should be deployed. The company recognized that the decision-making challenges faced by utility managers during major outages resemble the command and control challenges faced by military commanders during the planning and execution of a large-scale military operation. For the military, Logica utilized a decision-centered design methodology that draws on a number of disciplines including artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, computer graphics, operations research and software engineering to develop a practical solution to assist in the planning of military operations such as Desert Storm.

The ReSTORE decision support engine provides the following capabilities and benefits:

  • Prioritize, schedule, and manage restoration work– considers restoration priorities, resource availability, and repair estimates in generating an integrated restoration plan. ReSTORE takes into consideration the logical order in which restoration work should be scheduled. For example, it understands that outages nearer the substations should be fixed before downstream outages are repaired. It also understands that single outages and planned outages can be delayed while major outages are repaired. The result is more customers with restored power sooner.
  • Automatically reschedule crews– using Logica’s reactive re-planning algorithms to handle unforeseen changes in restoration work and work assignments (e.g., crew schedule changes or more extensive restoration work requirements than originally estimated) without disrupting the restoration activities that are currently underway. Recommend when to stop concentrating on restoring the most customers and begin completing all the outage is an area. The result is improved power restoration at lower costs.
  • Perform “what-if” contingency planning and analysis– explore “what-if” action plans during the planning timeframe; refining the plans as time goes on and data gets better; changing the refined plans into forecasted assignments and orders; and repairing the incremental disruptions and chaos of “the real world”. At the same time, ReSTORE preserves some level of commitment to the decision making and execution momentum of the operating elements which, following the previous round of decisions, are already in place and working.
  • View outage restoration situation status– ReSTORE offers innovative displays that provide operation managers with both rapid “big picture” assessment capability and drill down detail to particular circuit outages and repair actions. An enhanced situation awareness display provides one-stop shopping for the manager to assess the overall state of the restoration plan and make appropriate changes.
  • Outage management reports to assess restoration performance and plan for the next outage– performance and reliability reports support the analysis of completed outage work orders.

So no matter if your next outage is man-made or Mother Nature-made, it’s a step in the right direction to interface and integrate your customer service systems with your outage management system-so you and your customers can successfully weather the storm of power outages.

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