Utilities nationwide are investing in and deploying a new generation of network technology that promises to enhance the efficiency, reliability and resilience of energy distribution. This encompasses designing, implementing and managing new business models, organizational structures and mechanisms revolving around emergency response processes and systems that require significant shifts in workforce management.
Leading-edge digital technologies being tested and put to productive use in the field include;
- Wireless sensors
- Energy Internet of Things devices
- Battery-based energy storage
- Mobile-device apps
- Drones (aka unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs)
- Enterprise power grid and distributed energy resources management platforms
- Augmented and virtual reality systems
As the list continues to grow and expand, technological and organizational transformation at the speed, scope and scale utilities are undertaking today comes with correspondingly high challenges and risks.
Deriving the greatest value from these initiatives requires a lot more than re-designing and implementing new high-tech systems and networks. It entails designing and implementing innovative organizational strategies, plans and structures, and new business models and processes. It also requires significant investments in workforce education and training and customer outreach and engagement through the utilization of intelligent technologies.
Responding to emergencies and power outages
The historic hurricane season of 2017 highlighted the vulnerability of even storm-hardened power grids and natural gas distribution networks to nature’s forces. Extreme weather events – wildfires of historic proportions in California, Northwest and Mountain states, and massive flooding on the Hawaiian Islands caused by Tropical Storm Lane – continue to disrupt power and energy distribution across the US this year.
Utilities are increasingly turning to the latest digital Information and Communication Technologies and management software systems in response. Equipped with a growing range of networked wireless sensors, actuators, real-time process management and sophisticated, predictive analytics software- these innovative technologies hold out the promise of significantly enhancing outage management and emergency response restoration efforts.
Realizing these benefits is no small or short-lived task, however. It requires rolling out real-time, or near real-time data, information, communications networks in concert with power and energy and power control and management capabilities that extend across a utility’s service territory. Once implemented, processes that ensure continuous monitoring, assessment and improvement need to be instituted and carried out effectively.
Recent developments at the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC) provide a case in point. Serving more than 166,000 metered customers across six counties and two municipalities, NOVEC numbers among the US utilities investing in new, innovative technologies to enhance its ability to prevent, manage and recover from equipment or system failures and outages. NOVEC is finding that automating emergency response, outage management and restoration processes yields substantial gains in efficiency, effectiveness and safety- all of which translates into higher quality of service and lower costs.
Enhancing emergency response and restoration through automation
Enhancing its ability to dispatch field crews in response to emergencies in order to make repairs and restore services ranks among the greatest contributors to the returns NOVEC is realizing as a result of its investments. Until recently this has been a labor-intensive process involving some 215 union employees and is now largely automated.
NOVEC’s operations managers used to spend nine to 10 hours making call-outs to field staff during emergency response events. The electric co-op has reduced that number to an hour a day on average, or three to four hours a day during a larger scale event, as a result of investing in and deploying leading-edge, utility call-out and scheduling software platform.
The software system integrates and automates a variety of essential tasks that have dramatically improved NOVEC’s emergency response and power restoration capabilities. Key to this is bringing together all associated voice and data communications and automatically incorporating all relevant data in custom-designed analytics and utility call-out and scheduling applications in real-time.
NOVEC ranked high among the largest US utilities for quality of service and customer satisfaction even before it installed the software platform. It expects to continue improving.
“The ARCOS software will automatically find and contact our employees. Instead of spending their valuable time on the phone, our system operators will be able to activate ARCOS with only a few clicks and then focus on critical tasks such as high-voltage switching or coordinating restoration work with service technicians in the field,” NOVEC vice president of System Operations Dan Swingle commented. “We’re hoping that ARCOS will reduce our service restoration times, which will also help us meet our SAIDI [System Average Interruption Duration Index] goal.”