by Michael Johnson, Elster Solutions
In recent years, the electric utility industry has been awash in innovative technologies and the promise of business transformation via smart grid solutions. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has allowed for the capture, management and analysis of meter data that has the potential to empower utilities and customers like never before. The challenge is to leverage these new technologies to answer specific business opportunities: to convert vast volumes of meter data into intelligence that triggers timely and informed decisions across the enterprise. This feat requires fast, reliable, simple and nonresource-intensive ways to route critical information to the people in support of the business processes that rely on it. And the people who rely on it include not just personnel, but also customers and government leaders.
System interoperability is essential to achieving this objective, but to meet the increasing demands of the future, it isn’t enough. Utilities that will thrive will be those with business work flow solutions that share information among systems that span the enterprise and across departments and applications-unlocking the full value of their meter data and enabling their employees to operate more efficiently, productively and consistently.
Work flow in Action, Then and Now
Recently utilities depended solely on customer calls to know which areas of their distribution systems were affected by power outages. Estimating the size and impact of disturbances involved considerable guesswork based on callers’ input, and repair crews were dispatched based on this information. Power was restored as quickly as possible.
Enter distribution intelligence.
Today sensors can first pinpoint and then report areas of power outages to utilities. Moreover, today’s work management, outage management, volt-VAR and other distribution automation technologies have improved past practices. What will tomorrow’s advances look like? And what do utilities need to know and do to prepare for and capitalize on tomorrow’s possibilities? The meter data that fuels today’s distribution automation solutions will leverage modern and increasingly powerful analytics, and it will be integrated into applications that affect business operations across the utility and consumer landscape, from billing to customer service to outage and voltage management and more. To further derive value from captured meter data, these applications will fully integrate with one another and enable customized, scripted work flow solutions that are accessible to everyone who needs them, everywhere in the organization.
So, returning to the example, when tomorrow’s utility experiences a power outage, a scripted work flow will draw upon multiple, data-rich applications to enable even tablet-based workers in the field to instantly and easily:
- Identify the affected area;
- Isolate the cause;
- Locate the nearest available repair crew;
- Dispatch this crew by the most direct route to make repairs;
- Make the repairs;
- Ping affected meters to confirm power restoration; and
- Update all relevant databases about the repairs.
Similar efficiencies will be gained in other departments throughout the organization, as well.
For instance, analytical capabilities in diverse applications can mine the collected data from many scenarios, such as those mentioned, to give operational insights to managers on how efficiently the business is operating.
Analytics even could recommend improvements.
Work flows that ensure proper steps and consistent data capture can help make this a reality. Whether employees have dealt with a particular challenge will be of limited consequence. They won’t even need to know where the data resides to leverage it because future work flow solutions will have the embedded intelligence each worker requires. Users merely will define the problem that must be addressed. The work flow then will lead them through the steps to solve it using powerful, integrated applications driven by critical AMI data. The result?
- Reduced employee training time;
- Higher productivity;
- Increased consistency;
- Improved reliability; and
- Superior customer satisfaction.
A Work flow Solution That Works
A data-driven, application-integrated, business work flow solution can reward utilities and the communities they serve; however, to deliver maximum benefits with minimum disruption, specific features will be critical. Look for a work flow solution that:
1. Works the way you do. Too often, organizations must adapt to new technology that is intrusive to business processes and cumbersome for users. The value of a work flow tool lies in organizing and standardizing the performance of predictable tasks that span applications. As such, mapping the work to existing processes rather than retrofitting processes to the work flow tool is a significant advantage. Your work flow solution shouldn’t force you to change how you do business. It should improve operational efficiency and make your most important resource-people-more capable, confident and productive.
2. Turns every employee into a superuser. The ideal work flow solution will draw upon best practices to build optimized and standardized work flows for business processes across the enterprise. Employees then will be guided through these work flows via the data-rich, integrated applications that constitute the work flow tool on their computer screen. This ensures consistency, improves productivity and reliability, and turns every employee into a superuser without the time and expense of intensive training.
3. Makes integrated applications easily accessible. “Swivel-chair” integration was the standard in work flow, with employees’ moving from monitor to monitor and process to process to accomplish a task. Tomorrow will bring solutions that eliminate this inefficiency; solutions that give employees everywhere in the organization everything they need to accomplish their work quickly and easily from a single screen. Better yet, because the integration of applications that make these solutions possible often will occur only at the virtual user experience level, it won’t take a complicated, costly information technology (IT) project to implement one.
4. Provides easily controlled and secure administrative oversight. The most powerful tools for work flow automation will be of limited success without the proper administrative controls to effectively ensure consistency, ease of use and secure access. Designed and approved work flows must be consistent across the organization while leveraging the creative abilities of your work force. The security of your enterprise and the distribution network that serves your communities demands tight controls on who can effect changes.
You have personnel from another territory or utility responding to help with a storm event? These should be authorized quickly to work within your system on approved work flows. Your employees collaborate to create an effective work flow for better managing customer billing inquiries? This should be approved and shared for reuse across the organization for users of interest. A mechanism for securely leveraging the talents of your work force will ensure greater productivity, job satisfaction and an increased sense of ownership.
The continuing evolution of the smart grid will bring many exciting changes to the industry, some of which cannot be envisioned. We can see, however, a way to transform day-to-day utility operations through the integration of meter data with work flow-driven business processes. We’ll hear much more about innovation in this area as more businesses realize its benefits.
Michael Johnson is product manager for RF Mesh Data Collection Solutions for Elster Solutions, where he works on software strategy development, requirements management and strategic enterprise partner activities. He serves on U.S. and international smart grid standards bodies including the IEC TC57 WG14 (CIM) and the Multispeak Technical Committee. Prior to joining Elster, Johnson held software engineering positions within the defense and telecom industries, working on battlefield operational planning software and telecommunications infrastructure firmware. He has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from North Carolina State University.
Utilities Weigh In
When a flexible work flow tool was demonstrated to dozens of utility system operators, project managers and engineers in early 2013, they readily envisioned applications to make their own business processes easier and more efficient. Ideas included customer service, troubleshooting meters, testing and inventorying new meters, managing firmware versions by device, checking for outages, managing high-bill complaints, system design, transformer sizing and load management and voltage issues reported by customers. Consider an example from applications developer Zach Flanagan of East Mississippi Power Association.
“Creating outage and damage assessments would benefit from a work stream process tool, mainly because you have users from a plethora of backgrounds who may not perform this specific task on a daily basis,” Flanagan said. “The work stream would not only help those users along; it will mitigate/minimize the missing or incorrect data problems due to the user’s lack of knowledge. When you have large-scale outages due to hurricanes, for example, everyone helps, which is when you have the most inexperienced users and-at the same time-you need the work to be most efficient.”
A Technology Provider’s Take
Leading grid optimization technology provider Dominion Voltage Inc. (DVI) delivers advanced solutions for energy efficiency, demand response and volt-VAR control. When introduced to a flexible work flow tool, DVI Chief Technologist John Radgowski could envision ways in which the integration of voltage optimization-as provided by the company’s EDGE solution-could enhance utilities’ day-to-day operations.
“When a severe storm is coming and outage alarms are sounding, the scripted work flow could include disengagement of conservation voltage regulation (CVR) to affected areas, then prompt workers to re-engage voltage optimization when service is restored,” Radgowski said. “The same holds true for switching or construction. If a utility needs to take a portion of a circuit down, the distribution management user could execute a work flow that includes a step to disengage CVR at the start, and another to reactivate it when the system is returned to its normal state.”
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