by Bradley Williams, Oracle Utilities
“Reliability,” “resiliency” and “operational effectiveness” have been getting a good airing in the past year in utility board rooms, regulatory hearings, the industry media and the mainstream media.
Hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy and other storms brought a renewed focus on the resiliency of North America’s electric grid.
What can be done to harden the grid further against outages?
And what is required to prepare customers better for outages despite utilities’ best efforts?
Earlier this year, Oracle Utilities conducted an outage management survey at DistribuTECH Conference & Exhibition 2014 and via social media.
A straw poll of sorts, the survey was designed to determine how electric utilities are readying themselves and their customers for the next large outage.
What did electric utilities say they were doing well, and what efforts need improvement in storm and outage management?
Discoveries as a result of the survey centered around three significant areas:
- Planning and preparation;
- The need for technology systems and data analysis; and
- Communication strategies.
Weathering the Storm With Planning, Preparation
Nearly all utility respondents (95 percent) said storm and outage management planning and preparation is important for today’s electric utilities, and most respondents indicated it is “very important.”
That response was expected, especially because of an upsurge in major recent storms.
With utilities’ intense focus on reliability and safety, storm and outage management planning and preparation is key to keeping the lights on where possible and minimizing damage.
We have seen a continual uptake in investment in storm management and outage preparedness investment, which also was borne out by survey responses.
A full 100 percent of respondents indicated their utilities had invested in this area during the past year, and more than half (54 percent) classified their investments as “heavy” or “strong.”
When asked to identify the most important components for managing and responding to outages, survey respondents indicated outage area identification is most important (40 percent), followed by field work force efficiency (34 percent) and customer and stakeholder communication (34 percent).
In each area, technology and data analysis is beginning to play a leading role.
Technology Systems, Data Analysis are Keys to Success
Outage management, distribution management and network management tools provide clear visibility across a utility’s entire network, helping determine issues efficiently and quickly during an outage.
These tools provide real-time, decision-driving data to utility operators who work to manage the system safely, securely and efficiently.
The tools also reduce outage duration and increase operational performance by enabling self-healing, autonomous restoration, which brings customers back online quickly.
But the data these tools gather along the way is important in other ways, too.
The past-more specifically, the data gathered from past events-can help predict outcomes.
Long before a large storm hits, a utility can begin meshing internal, historical storm damage data with weather forecasts and other external information. By analyzing the resultant data sets, utility operators can predict potential damage and pre-emptively place personnel and other resources in areas most likely to be hit hardest.
Outage management system-embedded analytics used to estimate outage and storm restoration times-using variables such as season, temperature and type of storm, and using “what if” scenarios for staffing and equipment requirements-have proved immensely valuable.
So, too, is the ability to integrate and analyze data from across the utility, as well as data from social media channels and weather forecasts, to provide detailed information and clearer insights into what is necessary to restore electricity.
Not all utilities, however, use these resources. Respondents said that when a major storm approaches, only 59 percent of utilities use weather forecasts and previous storm data to anticipate and prepare for damages and outages.
Further, only about half (55 percent) ensure outage management systems are current.
Even fewer (44 percent) run proactive operational storm drills, and only 43 percent closely monitor grid asset maintenance.
Communication with customers and stakeholders is also an imperative part of outage management; however, when we asked survey respondents which area their utilities could improve upon related to storm management and response procedures, they overwhelmingly said “communication.”
Nearly half (49 percent) said they would rate their utilities’ communication with customers before storm-related outages as good or very good.
Only slightly more (59 percent) would give their utilities positive ratings during outages.
Utilities, though, are taking steps to increase customer and stakeholder communication, especially in mobile technology.
Thirty-one percent of survey respondents said their utilities provide weather forecasts and outage updates to customers via social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, and 23 percent email or text weather alerts and instructions to customers.
Utilities should remember that during outages, what utility customers don’t know can hurt them, and it can hurt utilities, too.
In today’s 24/7 always-on society, social media and mobile channels have become many customers’ go-to means of communication, especially during power outages.
If utilities aren’t communicating in the places customers are looking for information, they might as well not be communicating at all.
Utility best practices include providing easily accessible, online outage maps for customers and using Twitter and Facebook to share information and estimated time of restoration (ETR) updates.
Beyond Simple Communication
Communication is two-way and requires that the utility understand the need for and effectiveness of listening carefully and responding effectively.
In some cases, this might require utilities to monitor and respond to social media postings related to utility outages that are inaccurate or possibly create an unsafe situation.
Without an official, timely and accurate utility response, bad information posted will be assumed to be true.
The two-way, near-instant communication enabled by social media and mobile channels also makes them powerful tools for receiving vital information from customers such as photos of damaged or downed poles and wires, as well as for sharing restoration information with customers.
Con Edison, for example, used YouTube during Superstorm Sandy to post videos of employees who were working to restore power in Staten Island, Lower Manhattan and other areas affected by the storm.
In the videos, the Con Ed employees who assist in the restoration show and explain what they are doing, which lends a personal touch to the recovery efforts.
By integrating social tools with more traditional communications channels, utilities are finding new and increasingly effective ways to engage customers, regulators, employees, the media and other parties.
And doing so has gotten easier with enterprise-class tools for social relationship management.
Two-way communication will carry the day.
Today’s utility must be able to use the near real-time information provided by new operational technology to resolve outages quickly and keep customers and other stakeholders in the loop.
Quickly responding to an outage and restoring power is the primary directive of good outage management.
Equally important, utilities must understand the ever-growing needs and expectations of enlightened and empowered customers.
A strategy that involves communicating the information and listening and responding as quickly as possible will increase a utility’s ROI and return on relationship.
Bradley Williams is vice president of industry strategy at Oracle Utilities.
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