Utilities: Are you ready for the next Perfect Storm?

April 22, 2015

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Shortly before Christmas 2013, more than one million North American residents lost power as an aggressive ice storm cut a wide swath across the central and eastern portions of the U.S. and Canada. Although this storm took place more than two years ago, this multi-day storm event still offers us a vivid example of why utility companies must have sophisticated plans in place to effectively prepare and deploy resources for recovery efforts.

This article will explain the rationale for creating a detailed and unified Outage Management Process. It will highlight the digitization of networks, which is the foundation for implementing an OMP. It also will demonstrate the benefits that the OMP will provide for utilities, customers and regulators.

Increased stress on electric grid calls for better intelligence

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Many utilities across the United States are challenged by an aging infrastructure that needs repairs and equipment upgrades. While grappling with this infrastructure issue, many utilities also are facing a workforce challenge, because many of its baby boomer employees are approaching retirement. While utilities are assessing how to make the best human resource and equipment investments, they also are facing expanded scrutiny by regulators who have the power to fine them if their service performance deteriorates.

New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, Conn. and Jacksonville, Fla. are among the U.S. cities that are expected to see big increases in their power outage risks, according to a study released in December by Johns Hopkins University. In the study, a computer model helped Johns Hopkins engineers predict the increasing vulnerability of power grids in large coastal cities during hurricanes.

Not surprisingly, the study acknowledged that hurricane-prone cities such as Miami have significant risks. But the research team discovered that climate change has boosted the hurricane vulnerability of cities such as New York and Philadelphia, which are expected to see the magnitude of 100-year storm scenarios with greater frequency. “More people would lose power more often, and the worst storms would be substantially worse,” Johns Hopkins said in a statement released in late 2014.

The increasing rate of extreme weather events is one of the major factors driving the need for the development of a comprehensive outage management process. The wide scope of the weather challenges was defined last year when the U.S. Global Change Research Program released its national climate assessment, which was developed over four years by more than 300 climate scientists and technical experts.

They found that winter storms have increased in intensity and frequency since the mid-20th century. They also documented that the duration, intensity and frequency of North Atlantic hurricanes have increased in the last few decades. They projected that hurricane intensity and rainfall would increase with further climate changes. The assessment also emphasized that heavy downpours have been increasing in the United States, and the report indicated that increases in extreme precipitation are anticipated in all regions of the country.

Greater frequency of storms with greater potency is certainly a strong reason to adopt an OMP approach. A perfect storm of factors has emerged to substantiate the need for the OMP to help utilities fortify their service reliability and resiliency to anticipate and quickly recover from major storm events.

Creating a digitized network to establish an OMP

Step one in building a detailed OMP is creating a digitized record of assets. Every utility should have a digital record of its network to better position itself for the future. Maps and design drawings have been used by utility workers for generations. Candidly, as maps and drawings have accumulated over decades, their sum total has resulted in redundant and inaccurate data.

A 21st century solution involves developing an accurate, comprehensive digital record of all assets, which allows utility employees to track, manage and analyze its network. The digital asset records – which can be compiled through the use of a geographic information system – also provide the ability to identify trends and patterns within the network infrastructure. This type of analysis allows for better prediction of what assets are most vulnerable should a storm hit, helping the utility to be well prepared for restoration. Through digitization, a utility also has the power of accessing and sharing up-to-date information to help make better decisions on any day of the week, not simply in advance of or during a major storm event.

This is especially important because of the prevalence of aging infrastructure. The Galvin Electricity Institute estimates the average age of substation transformers in the United States to be 42 years, which is two years past the expected lifespan. The situation isn’t any better with transmission lines. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 70 percent of transmission lines are more than 25 years old and 60 percent of circuit breakers are more than three decades old.

When utilities are trying to determine which assets need to be inspected or replaced – in an attempt to harden the grid and hopefully limit outages in the event of a storm – the digital record gives new and veteran employees an accurate picture about a given asset in the context of the overall network.

Building the OMP to expand resiliency during outage events

Photo credit: iStock

An OMP prepares utilities for any outage, even the largest weather events, with an efficient, well-conceived plan. If a major storm ravages electricity assets in a large region, having an OMP will save a utility valuable time and resources.

Integrating accurate weather forecasts into the GIS provides a utility with vast intelligence on what infrastructure is most vulnerable in advance of the storm hitting, allowing it to deploy ground crews to where they are most needed even before the storm hits. This means the utility is not underprepared and scrounging for crews while concurrently dealing with outages and it’s also not over prepared wasting resources on crews that are not needed.

Once outages have occurred, the OMP helps the utility target areas where it can restore the largest groups of customers quickly. It can bring the bulk of customers back onto the power system quickly, and then allocate crews to those areas where restorations are more labor intensive and involve fewer customers. Throughout this process, customers can stay updated on restoration plans in near real time.

Asset digitization and OMP serve multiple stakeholders

Photo credit: iStock

As the generation of baby boomers retires, many key utility employees are walking away from their jobs with vital knowledge. The only way utilities can effectively manage their operations is by capturing knowledge about their assets in a digital format.

It not only is a huge benefit to new employees, but the digital asset inventory allows utility leaders to make better informed decisions about equipment repairs and replacements.

By giving office-based workers and field crews access to the same accurate information, people can make good decisions during storm recovery events. Utilities also can harness the power of the digital data to craft intelligent short-term and long-term plans for investing in the infrastructure.

When they are dealing with a major storm event, utilities will have the confidence to deploy their OMP, which allows them to save valuable time and resources in the recovery phase.

While utilities have business motives for effectively managing their resources, they also can tap their OMP capacity to ensure they don’t run afoul of mandatory reliability standards from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Likewise, state public utilities commissions are playing a public watchdog role to see whether utilities are doing what’s needed to promote service reliability in an age of more extreme weather events.

The customer, who takes safe and reliable electricity for granted on most days, is a big beneficiary of GIS asset digitization and the OMP approach. Commerce and daily living in residential neighborhoods can’t simply operate on backup generators indefinitely. Businesses, homeowners and apartment dwellers need competent utilities to reliably provide electricity and quickly recover it when Mother Nature strikes.

We don’t know when the next hurricane of Sandy proportions will hit. We don’t know where the next major tornado will wreak havoc in the midsection’s tornado alley. But we do know that utilities can’t simply wait to pick up the pieces after communities are devastated. The time is upon us to digitize assets within a GIS, harden the grid and develop an outage management process.


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