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The weather this winter hasn’t been very kind to most of North America. In early January, an Arctic cold front blanketed much of the country in snow and ice and also brought frigid temperatures in the single digits to areas as far south as Texas and Florida. By early February, another round of snow covered the U.S. from Alabama to Maine, which led to both school and business closings and a record number of flight cancelations.  Just one month later, Mother Nature brought heavy rains and tornado warnings across the southern states. 

In each of these cases, customers were left without power and utility companies fought the extreme conditions to restore power as quickly and safely as possible.  After hearing from a friend who was left without power for several days, and what she perceived as a lack of communication from her utility company, I began to think about how utilities invest in grid restoration and the impact this has on customers.  I thought it might be helpful to explain how most utilities go about restoring power to customers after major storms and the processes they follow. 

First, let’s assume a utility has taken every measure possible to prevent outages in the first place. This means they maintain proper clearances through a regular vegetation management program. They’re proactive and address areas of frequent outages. And, they’ve made the investment in underground distribution where possible and cost effective.

To prepare for faults, many utilities have also invested to varying degrees in distribution automation. While this is a high-capital, cost-intensive solution, it’s also one that can drastically reduce outage durations. The installation of automated switches on distribution circuits with embedded logic can help utilities immediately isolate faulted sections and restore power from adjacent circuits without any operator involvement. A distribution automation scheme can isolate and often restore service before the first outage call is ever processed or a crew dispatched. 

Expanding from distribution intelligence on field devices to back-office solutions, an Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS) can also help reduce outage duration. Using inputs from SCADA, smart meters, IVR systems and customer calls, the outage management component of an ADMS can then predict the most probable device that has operated. 

With an accurate picture of the damage, the utility can focus on repairing the main line feeders first, from which all of the laterals to homes and businesses receive power.  In a radial distribution system, the backbone network needs to be in place to feed everything else downstream.  Even once the main lines are up, the utility will then place emphasis on restoring power by a schedule of priority feeders and critical customers, with focus on hospitals and first responders as their top priority.  

Most ADMS solutions feature integrated analytics that can calculate power flows and recommend additional switching actions to an operator. These solutions can recommend manual devices or those with supervisory control, and it is up to the operator to determine the best course of action.

Before operational analytics were used in ADMS, operators had to use their knowledge of the distribution system, a switching map that hung on the wall with magnets for tie points and interpolation of SCADA load values to determine how much power was in each section and where to restore power to avoid overloading the other feeders. Now, ADMS can make recommendations such that when a crew arrives on site, they can immediately begin restoration, either through load transfers or repairs to damaged sections with confidence that the ADMS system has produced a reliable plan. So, by combining a distribution automation scheme that can restore power in seconds with an ADMS solution that can help cut hours of restoration through automated switching once the crews arrive, customers are able to have power restored faster than ever before.

But what happens to those customers whose power remains out -- customers like my angry friend who unfortunately lived in an area of town that was hit hard with storm damage that required lengthy repairs? All of the hardware and IT systems in the world can’t help their power come back on faster when old-fashioned line work has to be performed to fix the distribution system. This is where the key to customer service resides.  Most customer frustration revolves around lack of communication about the status of repairs. 

During blue sky days and even small storms, most utilities now provide an initial estimated restoration time (ERT) to customers when they report a power outage. Depending on the time of day, day of week, geographic area, staffing levels and years of statistical data, the utility can provide a very good estimate of the time it will take for power to be restored. After that, once a crew has been able to assess the damage, most utilities update the ERT with an actual projected time. This update can used if customers call back, for new customers calling in or for automated out bound dialing via IVR systems. With technology today, these updates are even being pushed out via SMS/MMS text messaging and emails to customers who signed up for notifications. More recently, utilities have taken to social media to provide outage update details through channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Some utilities even publish outage information through their websites, where a customer can login to their account and view real-time status.  Gone are the days where the power company would call the customers after an outage to verify that power had been restored.  This was labor intensive and costly to manage.  Today the use of smart meters have become so prevalent that the utility has automated this process and can seamlessly verify power restoration without having to call a customer in the middle of the night to ask if the lights came on.

I remember reading a study a few years ago where EPRI reported customers would be willing to be without power for twice as long or have twice the outage frequency, as long as they had better information about the outage (i.e., duration, cause and current status) while the outage was going on.  I know utilities are often wary of providing restoration time estimates, but customers make critical decisions that differ if the power will be back on in two hours, two days or two weeks. It can be a lose-lose situation for a utility to provide an inaccurate ERT that causes additional customer frustration compared to not communicating at all and leaving customers in the dark. Even so, there is value in this communication channel, and it is proven that customers are willing to be more tolerant about outages as long as the utility is talking with them.

Eventually the power was restored for my friend, but it didn’t help with her frustration over the lack of communication from her utility.  In the end, communicating with customers during an outage can be viewed as more important than the outage itself. Distribution automation and power flow can help to restore power quickly, but customer communication can have ten times the value at a fraction of the cost. 

With more winter storms sure to strike, followed by a spring of wind, rain and tornados, utilities will continue to battle the elements that wreak havoc on their facilities. During these times, it’s good to remember that while customer service can’t always be quantified like a reduction in SAIDI, happy customers don’t vent on social media.  

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