by Bradley Williams, Oracle Utilities
Customers want reliability more than anything from their utilities.
And when their power goes out, they want their utilities to assess problems quickly, communicate estimated times of restoration (ETR) accurately, and explain why the power went out.
The “why” of an outage is a new electric utility consumer expectation. But as we continue to educate consumers about energy efficiency, wise consumption and the intricate workings of the 21st-century grid, we can expect the why to become as important to enlightened consumers as the when.
Good Communication is Essential
Preventing outages isn’t possible 100 percent of the time. Storms can flood substations, topple trees onto distribution lines, snap poles and damage the physical grid, all of which must be repaired before power can be restored to customers.
But if outages occur frequently and are of extended duration, customers definitely ask themselves why, plus their utilities, neighbors and possibly even regulators during their utilities’ next rate case hearings.
Fully explaining to a customer why he or she endured an eight-hour power outage using something more descriptive than “vegetation on line” is as much a part of good outage management as restoring the electricity.
Effective outage restoration communication with customers is a utility imperative.
A report by Emergency Preparedness Partnerships (EPP) for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities on the emergency preparedness of New Jersey electric distribution companies during Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and a snow storm that October states, “The entire community is dependent on power, therefore, information about power outages and restoration is critical. Effective communication is a key component to the success of an EDC’s (Electric Distribution Company’s) restoration process. No matter how successfully an EDC conducts its restoration activities, poor and inaccurate communications will outweigh many of the positive aspects of those efforts.”
Utilities already recognize this. One of the most reported uses of social media and mobile channels by utilities is as customer communication tools during outages. The social media space has great power and is an instant communications tool, especially during electrical outages, thanks to the proliferation of cellular devices.
“This is the power of the social media space,” a utility spokesman said earlier this year when Oracle was researching utilities’ social media motivators. “By using these channels we have the ability to communicate in an effective and timely manner with customers on topics that concern their safety.”
Then and Now
Outage planning and preparation are continually moving targets, especially given the increasing frequency of severe storms and that each storm presents its own challenges. As a result, outage planning and preparation must be updated continually.
Post-outage analysis on every operational level provides utilities with continual opportunities to review procedures and practices and incorporate lessons into new outage restoration and recovery best practices. As more critical smart grid applications move to the advanced distribution management systems or network management systems (incorporating outage management and distribution management systems), utilities also use advanced technology to drive increased operational performance.
In the case of severe storms, being able to have clear visibility across their entire networks with access to real-time, decision-driving data is crucial to utilities to work safely and effectively to restore power quickly.
This is a recent change from when utilities relied on paper wall maps, printed work tickets and system operators’ in-depth knowledge of their coverage areas alone. Then, aggregating information on outages meant painstakingly collecting information from on-the-ground and in-the-field employees, customers’ phone calls, nonutility emergency personnel and more.
What Technology Enables
Integrating outage management and distribution management systems with other operational technology such as geographic information, supervisory control and data acquisition, mobile dispatch and advanced metering infrastructure systems allows for a clear, near real-time, end-to-end view of the distribution network.
Being able to combine and analyze this source data, model data and map data on a single Web-based platform allows system operators much more granular knowledge of the extent of any outage and the ability to dispatch crews more quickly, and it gives customers and other key stakeholders more clearly defined and outage-specific estimated restoration times.
System-embedded analytics allow system operators to factor in variables such as season, temperature and type of storm and “what-if” scenarios to understand better what is coming. As well, by meshing external information such as weather forecasts with internal information (both real-time and historical), operators can work to proactively identify, analyze and address issues before outages and update best practices afterward.
Bringing it Back to Customers
Operational technology has progressed in recent years in providing new tools with which to increase utility operational efficiency, effectiveness and reliability. But today’s utilities also need to use that near real-time information and ability to respond to effectively communicate in real time what customers need to hear: the when and why of outages and their restorations.
Operational and communications tools must go hand in hand. Utility customers no longer are willing to wait in the dark for their electricity to return. Now within minutes they are reaching for their cell phones and other connected devices to call their utilities, check their outage notification Web pages, tweet, or post a Facebook status to announce their lack of electricity.
As Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire knowledge.” That is especially the case with today’s 24/7 connected populace. Quickly responding to an outage and restoring power is of first importance in good outage management. Equally important, however, is effectively communicating with customers on as many channels as possible so they can access the information they need quickly. Prompt, specific information means the difference between a responsive, engaged customer and an angry, dissatisfied one.
Bradley Williams is vice president of industry strategy at Oracle Utilities.