The number of record-breaking storms since 2011, especially in the Northeast, has brought much attention to utilities and their ability to handle emergency response. As millions of Americans have been battling power outages and energy supply shortages due to this season’s record low temperatures, consumers are wondering what the weather might bring next and if their local power company will be prepared.
Utilities have been busy investing billions of dollars in resiliency measures and modifying their emergency response plans. The real results only become apparent, however, when their activities and advanced planning are put to the test during a severe event.
It is clear that public expectations for reliability and restoration has raised the bar considerably for utilities. Under the critical eye of both regulators and customers, we must ask: Are utilities better prepared today for extreme weather events than they were before Superstorm Sandy?
There are three important dimensions of storm preparedness to consider: the role of network infrastructure hardening (prevention), the role of responding to outages during an event (reaction) and the role of stakeholder management (perception).
Utilities continue to make significant investments in preventative or hardening measures to generation and transmission facilities. Over the last few years we have seen a focus on:
- Data-driven asset management decision processes and use of structured methodologies such as PAS 551 are becoming more commonplace, helping utilities to better understand pressure points and maintenance/replacement focus.
- Installation of flood barriers around generation and substation facilities, and ensuring the resistance of flood-prone equipment
- Undergrounding of particularly vulnerable overhead feeders, where such measures are cost effective.
- Integration of more advanced automatic reclosing technologies and DMS software applications are helping in the battle to prevent or limit the impact of outages.
For example, PSE&G plans to spend $2.7 billion over the next ten years on these types of improvements for its electric network. Con Edison plans to spend over 1 billion dollars on their system over the next three years, also on network system hardening. However, hardening of generation and transmission assets takes time and is unlikely to deliver the immediate benefits necessary to handle this year’s storms.
Ultimately, weather event related damage and outages are inevitable. Therefore, efforts around restoration effectiveness have become increasingly important over the last few years.
Several Midwest and Northeast utilities have been at the cutting edge of such restoration improvements:
- The testing and implementation of enhanced weather modeling systems, OMS, DMS and AMI applications are providing the necessary tools to forecast and respond to extreme events more effectively. These technologies allow utilities to model in advance service territory impacts and predict the number of damage/outage locations and customers affected.
- Mobile technologies in the field to support Damage Assessment enable utilities to obtain timely and accurate data – which is critical to situational awareness during an event. Utilities can ensure that restoration teams are allocated effectively and that field efforts are prioritized based on need.
- Working with regional mutual aid organizations to reform the mutual aid process in order to better allocate adequate foreign resources to the utilities with the most urgent need
- Increased focus on centralized control models based on the Incident Command System structure and smarter field crew allocation – this will hopefully lead to enhanced coordination and effectiveness of limited resources, as well as lower costs
- More robust training and storm drills simulated to cover events affecting up to 90% of customer base.
While preventative and reactive measures are within a utility’s control, it is more difficult for the utility to control public perception.
No matter how quickly a utility restores power, there may be a substantial difference between actual restoration performance and perceived performance in the eyes of the customer, regulator, politicians and media during an event. To address this gap, utilities are:
- Working with regulators to define and understand new scorecards and metrics that better align to the public’s expectations around storm response
- Working to make sure that the all-important ETRs (estimated time to restoration) are generated in a more timely and accurate fashion
- Looking at faster modes of communicating, such as social media, text and email alerts.
Though utilities may never be able to stay completely ahead of customer expectations, it is clear that the industry is stepping up efforts with respect to emergency response. This longer term step change will likely involve overhauling the aging generation and transmission system to make way for a digital utility that supports automated troubleshooting via real-time, two-way communications and perhaps greater local customer generation / storage to reduce dependency on the centralized grid.
While we may find ourselves asking, “Are we better prepared?” at the outset of each storm season, a continued focus on prevention, reaction, and perception measures will undoubtedly help utilities in their goal to deliver safe and reliable electricity to their customers.
To find out more about PA’s ReliabilityOneTM and how your utility could benefit from transmission and distribution and customer service benchmarking, contact us now.