The last several years of hurricane seasons have been eventful and 2019 proved to be no different.
The 14 named storms caused more than $11 billion in damage. Of the five named hurricanes, Dorian and Lorenzo reached Category 5 strength.
The increasing frequency and strength of storms means that electric utilities are faced with damage to their systems and the need to restore service as quickly as possible. Smart utility networks have become essential components of utilities’ outage response plans, providing critical data that helps utility managers pinpoint the location of outages and repair the damage exponentially faster than would otherwise be achievable.
Now that we have entered 2020, let’s look back at how, just about a year ago, one innovative utility used its smart utility network to aid in restoration efforts and get the lights back on amidst catastrophic conditions.
Responding to Hurricane Florence in Fayetteville
In September 2018, residents and businesses in Fayetteville, North Carolina, braced for the arrival of Hurricane Florence. The military community situated 60 miles south of Raleigh was no stranger to seasonal weather events, but no one could foresee the historic flooding and $24 billion in damage that would occur as the storm slowed down for an extended stay in the Tar Heel State.
Florence turned into the “storm of a lifetime“ due to stalled weather patterns that caused the hurricane to move across the region at a snail’s pace. By the time the hurricane reached Fayetteville, residents were in for four days of unprecedented rainfall and damages never seen before. Florence would ultimately dump up to 20 inches of rain in certain parts of the area and leave more than 50,000 customers without power.
For years, Fayetteville Public Works Commission (PWC) practiced and refined its emergency plan of operations to get ready for an event of this magnitude and ensure that it could respond at a moment’s notice. It knew that supporting customers through the storm would ultimately require the hard work of every staff member and the right technology to get service restored as soon as possible.
Preparing for the worst
Fayetteville’s hometown utility is the largest public power provider in North Carolina with more than 82,000 electric customers. Staff knew they needed a system that would not only assist in customer communication but also help restore service quickly. Since everything happens rapidly when severe storms hit, the team wanted to monitor the situation in real-time and provide customers with accurate, up-to-date data throughout the storm’s duration. These goals call for a combination of infrastructure, software and services that need to work together to provide a holistic communications and support platform.
To streamline outage management and improve communications, Fayetteville PWC decided to make the move to a smart utility network from Sensus, a Xylem brand. The solution runs on the point-to-multipoint communication network, a reliable, two-way system that produces real-time data. The private network architecture offers fast and accurate outage detection and responsive issues resolution, freeing up time for utility management and maintenance staff to focus on restoring power for customers. The system also helps eliminate capital investments such as IT resources, extra office space or specialized equipment.
Riding the storm
With its network acting as a compass, Fayetteville PWC’s team was hunkered down yet ready for action in the Emergency Response Center when Hurricane Florence arrived. Every department within the utility supported storm response efforts and each employee had an assignment, whether answering phones or updating social media. As the storm slowly made its way through the region, the utility used its network to stay on top of the situation. The system gave staff the ability to provide real-time updates to residents and put out hourly notifications to local media channels and across social media to keep the public informed.
At the peak of the storm 15 of 35 substations lost service. When the hurricane’s wrath finally began to subside, Fayetteville PWC used the network to immediately initiate the outage restoration process. Mutual aid workers from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee offered additional help with downed powerlines and trees toppled on homes. Having the insights to know exactly where to put boots on the ground proved to be greatly beneficial. Ninety-seven percent of customers who had lost power were back up-and-running within 96 hours. Fayetteville PWC was also able to keep the damage of Florence from impacting public safety during relief efforts thanks to the accuracy of the system. Utility crews completed the restoration process with no reports of injuries.
The utility’s efforts to communicate proactively with customers during and after the prolonged hurricane didn’t go unnoticed. Fayetteville PWC was honored with a North Carolina City & County Communicators’ Excellence in Communications Award for its social media communications during the storm.
Its social media messages reached nearly half a million people and the team had over 1,300 private message conversations with customers during the storm and the week-long recovery efforts.
Fayetteville PWC’s story demonstrates how, with investments in smart utility networks, utilities can be better prepared to manage restoration efforts and meet customers’ expectations for fast service restoration. As the paradigm of utility delivery and consumption shifts with new technology applications, data delivered over these networks can help electric utilities become smarter, faster and more effective in their ability to deliver on customer needs while preparing for tomorrow’s disasters.
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