Proactive outage management enables improved service restoration

by Brad Williams and Matt Knott, Oracle Utilities

Major weather events are a recurring cause of service disruption for utilities and customers alike, and the recent wave of severe natural events has resulted in more complicated outage situations and larger affected areas. Despite the complexities, customer expectations are rising, and regulators are imposing more rigorous mandates on utilities for responsiveness, particularly targeting improved estimated restoration times, better communication, and shorter outage durations.

Having a plan in place is critical – waiting to simply react to a storm event is impractical, ineffective, and costly. But all plans are not created equal. The extent to which a plan is executable and scalable ultimately determines a company’s success or failure in achieving its outage-management goals.

Preparedness pays off

Anticipating what might happen during an event from a probabilistic standpoint allows companies to predict the impact of storm damage. What type of weather system is expected? How severe will it be? Where will the storm hit? Which customers will be most affected? What assets are likely to be impacted? What assets have the largest customer impact should failure occur?

Imagine the value of having this type of information a couple of days ahead of the weather incident. Through machine learning technology and data analytics, utilities can create empirical damage models to predict how much wire down, how many poles will be broken, fuses blown and service transformers that likely need to be replaced. Improved forecasting allows companies to source materials and resources ahead of time, reducing logistics issues, which are the biggest challenges when responding to outages that cover a broad area. 

Knowing where crews and equipment will come from and having mutual assistance contracts in place before an event allows personnel and resources to deploy that the highest at risk locations faster. When plans are in place to have dispatchers on site, call centers staffed, and communication plans organized, it is possible to dramatically improve the quality and speed of a utility’s response.

In short, proactivity saves time and money.

Laying the groundwork for success

Recent challenges illustrate how vital it is for companies to have an outage management plan that can expand on demand, incorporate real-time changes, and enable updates to be communicated effectively to customers.

A substandard plan means a utility’s response is inconsistent. Utilities are struggling to improve, but for many, the way forward is unclear. Developing a framework that outlines the goals of the outage response plan will help utilities contend with extreme conditions and deliver better service to customers.

To succeed meeting today’s high expectations, utilities need a scalable, trusted, and proven outage management system (OMS) that allows them to predict and profile outages so they can organize dispatching and oversee teams in the field. An ideal plan must provide call grouping analysis, work status and timestamp tracking, multi-channel communication and customer information system (CIS) integration. It needs to provide a switching tool and be updatable in real time both in the field and at the operations center using outage analytics with geographic information system (GIS) and computer-aided design (CAD) inputs. In other words, utilities need a system that prepares grid operators and field personnel for managing real-life scenarios as well as training operators for expected worst-case scenarios. 

That is a huge and imposing list of deliverables, but there are OMSs on the market that allow a utility to tightly connect the customer, the grid, and the repair process, responding to real-time data to improve the response and management of outages and the speed with which progress is communicated to affected customers.

More data, no problems

Proven OMSs can improve the end-to-end process for unplanned outage events. They can minimize the impact of an outage via improved understanding of event scenarios, real-time grid monitoring, and more effective use of human resources.

One of the vital concerns in managing an outage is how to be sure the company is acting on accurate and current information. Because data can originate from an ever-growing list of diverse devices and sources – IoT sensors, historical weather documentation, and in-field mobile devices – the OMS must be able to ingest, normalize and transform these data into accurate, actionable information to effectively update and refocus work plans. When data come from disparate sources into a system that cannot aggregate and analyze it, the result is data overload rather than informed decision-making. 

A well-structured OMS manages input from the control room, field crews, and customer service representatives who are gathering intelligence from customers. By applying built-in artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, the system can analyze data to update plans and forecasts in seconds instead of the hours this process takes without the ability to aggregate disparate data streams. This process is continuous, which means restoration estimates are being updated often, making them considerably more accurate. Problems are tagged and prioritized so the most critical concerns are at the top of the list, and resources can be allocated appropriately for rapid resolution.

One of the most important features of an OMS is proven scalability – having the storm-proven scalable capacity to handle variable call volume, assess multiple situations simultaneously, and quickly and accurately dispatch crews where they need. The best system does not require some elements of the response plan to be put on hold while more critical components of the plan are executed. It has to work regardless of the volume of data coming in or number of concurrent events being managed.

This OMS also simplifies analytics, allowing utilities to gather customer and operational data to evaluate past performance, identify successes and failures, and develop plans for improved execution for future events. By recording outages at the lowest point in the network, it is possible to write a record against every customer who is part of that outage using a real-time model in the software. It is possible to know the scope of a problem as it occurs as well as who is affected. As service is restored, a record is written to document which customers were restored and at what time. 

This level of recordkeeping enables internal process improvement post-event by allowing the operator to see when jobs were dispatched and how effective the dispatching was, allowing bottlenecks to be identified and performance to be improved. With more metrics, providers can continue to measure and improve processes over time. In addition, the generated data should be used in required reliability reporting for local authorities and provides an audit trail to the actual event history.

Finally, by getting a better handle on field activities and progress reports on repairs, it also is much easier to get updates to customers more frequently. Customers who are better informed generally rate their satisfaction with their provider much higher than those who believe a utility does not share information in a timely way.

Achieving success

Severe weather is beyond human control. The way in which utilities respond to these dramatic weather events is not. 

With proactive planning, a reliable partner, and a proven OMS platform, it is possible to exceed today’s industry expectations. Combining the scalability necessary to support greater data volume and the flexibility to combine this with the latest technology innovations, utilities are at the cusp of a new era with proactive outage management.

Bradley Williams is vice president of Oracle Utilities product management, and is responsible for outage management, distribution management, mobile workforce management, work and asset management, and load analysis utility applications and smart grid strategy. Williams has more than 24 years of utility technology innovation experience. Prior to joining Oracle, he was a research director for Gartner’s Energy and Utilities Industry Advisory Services, focusing on utility applications of GIS, SCADA/EMS/DMS, outage and work management, and transmission and distribution (T&D) asset management research. Prior to that, he directed PacifiCorp’s T&D asset management and was responsible for long-term asset strategies and business technology that developed and implemented comprehensive IT investment programs. As director of T&D infrastructure planning, he was responsible for PacifiCorp’s subtransmission planning, telecommunications, and operations technology development groups. Williams also worked at Southern California Edison for 10 years, where he was involved in transmission system planning, distribution automation, and reliability programs.

Matthew Knott is responsible for strategic marketing and commercialization of Oracle Utilities’ operations technology solution portfolio. Matthew has over 10 years of experience in the energy industry with roles in engineering, pre-sales, and product management. Prior to Oracle Utilities, Matthew spent 6 years in product management at ABB and Gridco Systems with a focus on grid management technology development and solution delivery for electric utilities. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and Masters in Business Administration.    

Incident response is a focus at DISTRIBUTECH International, where Oracle is an exhibitor and sponsor. Learn more about the event here. 

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