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Storm response and organised chaos: Utilities can prepare and plan for the unpredictable

Utility Products

1 January 2013


Successful storm response is best managed through a combination of people, process and technology. Planning, preparing and implementing a response to a major storm event in a prescriptive manner improves restoration times and minimises risks to public safety and utility perception as seen after the severe weather impacts from Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene in the past two years.

Sandy and Irene presented unique challenges for utilities and resulted in many customers experiencing outages of significant duration. The average days for a utility in the tri-state region (ie Connecticut, New York and New Jersey) to restore service to some 90 per cent of its customers experiencing an outage following Sandy was almost eight days, with the highest and lowest performing utilities achieving that restoration threshold in three days and 12 days, respectively. With many customers experiencing outages for over a week in the aftermath of the storms, responses by some utilities have drawn the ire of regulators and politicians who are requiring utilities to improve all aspects of their restoration practices including readiness, communications, and outage reporting and restoration.

Pre-storm logistics

In an effort to aid restoration following Sandy, utilities across the tri-state region mobilised employees and contractors, and had a peak of some 28,000 linemen in the field at any given time, including out-of-state utility assistance from as far away as California. Much of this additional manpower, however, arrived up to four days after the storm and some of their available manpower was not used in the most efficient manner. To improve their effectiveness and response times, utilities should:

  • Periodically review and update their emergency restoration plans-including adjusting plans to effectively understand and communicate differences in work practices, rules and equipment with foreign crews, and use the latest generation predictive models to determine the number of crews to help manage logistics more effectively (accommodation, food, storage, fuelling refuse, materials, etc.)
  • Enhance formal mutual-aid agreements with neighbouring utilities and contractors; leverage mobile workforce management technology to actively manage resource availability, skill sets and other considerations to ensure human resources and equipment are pre-staged and can be monitored and redeployed based on storm severity.

Damage assessment and repair

The extent of damage experienced during Sandy, estimated at over $60 billion in the tri-state region, overwhelmed many of the utilities impacted by the storm and required entire sections of their distribution system be rebuilt. The ability to effectively assess damage across the system and issue accurate estimated time of restorations (ETRs) to keep regulators and the public up-to-date on restoration progress involves a combination of process and technology.

During storms such as Sandy, damage assessment and repair efforts can be optimised in real-time through the use of mobile technologies along with their outage management system (OMS) and distribution management system (DMS). During the response to the storm, many utilities' OMSs were overwhelmed, impacting overall effectiveness and creating the need for manual damage assessment in the field. As outages are addressed and become more isolated, utilities can leverage technologies such as OMS and DMS in the operations centre to manage and track restoration progress, customer outage counts, ETR and other critical restoration functions. Technologies would allow utilities to:

  • Have a real-time view of distribution systems that, coupled with automated metering infrastructure (AMI), can help utilities quickly detect outages
  • Diagnose system conditions with operating data from AMI, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) alarms, and wireless fault indicators to identify isolated outage pockets to focus restoration efforts
  • Use mobile applications to conduct damage assessment in the field, including sending photos to distribution operations centres and correcting mapping inaccuracies in real-time
  • Mobilise their work force through an integrated workforce management system, which helps track the location of crews and trouble-shooters relative to outages
  • Use mobile data terminals (MDTs) to push field orders to crews that coordinate where to go and what to do
  • Use mobile technology to communicate real-time updates of ETRs between crews and the control centre.

Utilities’ using an integrated damage assessment strategy will have a clearer understanding of the condition of their distribution system and, when used in conjunction with historical repair time data for each type of equipment, will allow them to respond to outages by isolating faults and restoring customers quickly as well as improve their ability to establish and update accurate global and local ETRs as additional information from the field is received.

We Energies, a Wisconsin-based public utility and eight-time winner of the Midwest region ReliabilityOne™ award, implemented many industry best damage assessment, repair processes and technologies.

Through We Energies' previous experience, it was revealed that the manual process of entering damage assessment information created inefficiencies. By exploring and implementing electronic damage assessment through Esri's ArcGIS Online tool, the company is now able to use technology, such as the iPad, to evaluate damage in the field.Damage assessors can identify damaged locations, take pictures, determine type of work and create material lists, all in real-time. This enables crews to arrive onsite with a restoration strategy and all necessary materials, prepared for even complex equipment damage.

The company recognised that lag time existed between a crew finishing a work assignment and being assigned another. Non-productive ‘crew waiting for work’ time is all but eliminated because of the implementation of an indicator that gives the work dispatcher advanced notification of when a crew is nearing completion of an assigned order. This allows the next work assignment to be delivered to the crew with minimal wait time.

Customer communications

All but one of 10 utilities across the tri-state area restored power to over 90 per cent of their customers experiencing an outage within 10 days of Sandy. While the majority of customers were restored within the initial global ETRs of seven to 10 days, however, many still experienced outages for over two weeks after the storm.

Utilities facing the least amount of scrutiny for their storm response are those who effectively communicated the extent of damage experienced during Sandy and their effort to restore service to customers. These utilities used a combination of technologies to proactively inform customers of their progress. This included using more traditional means such as interactive voice response (IVR) messages and emails, and newer approaches that included websites optimised to include a storm screen, mobile platforms and social media such as Twitter to convey information to customers on storm preparations and how it would affect their restoration progress.

We Energies recognises the importance of keeping customers informed of up-to-date restoration times. In an effort to increase accuracy, a new tool was developed. By initiating contact with the crewmembers onsite through an automatic IVR call, ETRs are easily updated by touchtone phone. This information is then imported into OMS, allowing the new ETR to be communicated to the customer. The automatic call is initiated 15 minutes prior to the ETR expiring. This eliminates the need for crewmembers to return to the computer stationed in their vehicles to enter this information and usually can be done prior to the previous ETR expiring.

Customers, regulators and other stakeholders are demanding continuous improvement from utilities in the area of major storm response and communications. The innovative utilities that find or create new processes and technologies to improve the customer's experience will ultimately stay a step ahead of their peers.

To improve their performance, utilities should focus on three aspects of their storm response: pre-storm logistics, damage assessment and repair, and customer communications.

 


To learn more about learn more about PA’s ReliabilityOne™ award programme honouring utilities that excel, contact us now.

   
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