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And Then There Was Light

Thomas Edison first patented a system for electricity distribution in the late 17thcentury.  In 1882, the Edison Illuminating Company switched on the Pearl Street Station, which generated electrical power at 110 volts DC to a few dozen customers in lower Manhattan. A few months later, the company hung the first overhead wires in Roselle, New Jersey, consequently exposing the system to weather related outages. Although these wires were the pioneer in electrical distribution systems to come, the system was not very reliable. Lucky for Edison, customer expectations were low and the high dependency on electricity would not happen until the next century.

Since then, utilities have used some form of outage management to solve problems on the distribution system. This process became more efficient with the mainstream use of computers and refined late in the 20thcentury as solution providers offered commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions for outage management. While some utilities still use manual methods to handle outages, some have developed internal software tools or implemented vendor solutions. When utilities justify a change in how they manage outages, their reasoning will differ based on their starting point.

Managing Outages on Paper (No OMS Solution)

Justifying an outage management system when a utility uses a manual, paper-based system is a fairly easy exercise, especially when you consider the amount of manual labor involved in the process.  While there are numerous benefits, here are just a few:

  • Outage prediction to the correct over current protection device eliminates sorting of individual trouble order tickets, which are often printed out for sorting
  • Tracking of crews in real time with a geospatial reference allows a dispatcher to find the closest qualified crew, reducing response time
  • Reduced outage duration times due to restoration planning and prioritizing outages
  • Electronic data capture of outage information when closing orders provides accuracy in commission reporting
  • Improved customer satisfaction with real-time updates, such as the estimated restoration time during an outage from field crews on site

Managing Outages Using a Home-grown Solution

Going back several decades, utilities recognized they needed software to manage outages, so they developed internal tools. The main benefit of this approach was their ability to customize the solution to match the business processes. As time passed, maintaining or improving these solutions became difficult because they were often built on platforms no longer supported by IT, and the developers who built the code were retired. Today, there are a number of utilities in this situation that need to move toward a vendor-supported OMS solution. Here are a few benefits to this:

  • Allows internal IT staff to focus on internal business
  • Leverages the latest enhancements from regular updates or upgrades
  • True COTS software enables configuration to meet business needs without customized solutions
  • Prebuilt interfaces help integrate support systems (AMI, SCADA, CIS, etc.)
  • Meets IT standards by working on the latest hardware, software, and database platforms

Managing Outages Using a Vendor COTS System

For a variety of reasons, at the time of an upgrade, utilities will explore all of their options for staying with the current vendor or looking at other vendors. Most OMS vendors will offer 90 percent of the functionality the utility is looking for, so there must be business drivers to make a change. In some cases, it makes sense functionally and financially to move to a new solution instead of upgrading the existing solution. In this case, the benefits to switching are not as clear. Here are some questions a utility can ask itself to make this decision: 

  • What is the vendor’s future direction in outage management? Is this a core part of its business going forward?
  • What is the support model for the vendor? Do I get a knowledgeable person to answer my technical questions in a timely manner?
  • What is the relationship with vendor? Will it be on-site to support our OMS during major storms?
  • What is the total cost of ownership for the vendor solution? (considering maintenance, support costs, etc.)
  • Are there significant functional differences that warrant changing from my existing system to a vendor’s system?

Justifying a Change in Outage Management

This process of justifying a change in how utilities manage outages will vary depending on the starting point. Taking the time to evaluate the current environment for OMS by attending conferences, reviewing electronic content online, and conferring with colleagues at other utilities is a wise and justified decision. There is a possibility that the utility may choose to do nothing, but without knowing what is out there and being educated on the notes and questions as outlined above, you may be leaving some benefits on the table.

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