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Recently we had a power outage at my office just before the lunch hour.  The aging battery on my laptop no longer holds a charge, so quickly I scrambled to save all of my open documents and shut down before losing any work from the morning. 

The time was 10:43 a.m.

My first reaction was that the problem was localized to our campus.  We have frequent power quality issues that will cause the power to go out but most often it is short lived and quickly things are back to normal.  This time, instead of the power coming back up immediately, we all sat in the dark for a few minutes.  While some people rejoiced that the power was out and went to lunch early, I had an impending deadline fast approaching and I needed to get back online. 

Almost immediately the inter-office rumors began to spread about the cause of the outage.  Of course none of these were factual as there was no outside-world contact at that point, but they were quite humorous nonetheless.  They ranged from the tame car pole accident to the wild notion that a plane had flown into nearby wires.  Regardless of the cause, it was clear that the outage was more widespread than just our campus, as nearby businesses and street lights were also out. 

Instead of relying on our office assistant and her hearsay for reliable information, I turned to social media for answers.  If the outage was going to last more than an hour, I would pack up my things and head home to finish out the day and safely meet my deadline.  While it would have been nice to know the cause of the problem, on this day I just wanted to know how long the restoration efforts would take.

I checked my Twitter feed to see if any of my normal local news sources had reported the disturbance.  The first to report the problem was a local TV station, who noted that there was a large power outage in the western part of the city.

The time was now 10:49 a.m.

The first report of the outage by the local utility came two minutes later when they noted the same details as the TV station tweet, adding that there would be “more details to follow”.  With tens of thousands of people in a predominantly business oriented section of town, this message received 44 retweets and one favorite.

The time was now 10:51 a.m.

The TV station tweeted again, this time adding that the utility was working to restore power as quickly as possible.  This last tweet provided no new information, as one would expect that the utility was aware of the outage and doing everything they could to get the lights back on, and that they would be safe while doing so. 

The time was now 11:02 a.m.

The utility tweeted again, this time noting the extent of the outage which impacted a much larger portion of the county than previously noted.  My co-workers who had left the office early for lunch to get food at a nearby Mexican restaurant were welcomed by the wait staff standing outside as they were also without power.  The utility ended their tweet by noting that they had crews enroute.

The time was now 11:04 a.m.

Up until now, I was fairly pleased with the communication and information available about the outage.  Within 20 minutes I knew how large the outage was and that there were line crews on their way to fix the problem.  I certainly didn’t expect to know the exact restoration time at that point, but I hoped that an estimate would be provided to the media.  The majority of outage management systems today are sophisticated enough to provide estimated restoration times based on time of day, day of week, geography, weather conditions, number of available crews and type of outage.  While I specifically did not call to see if this information was available from the utility, I thought that eventually someone in the dispatch center would have provided an estimate to the media relations and routed it through social media.  During the early stages of an outage, an estimate of plus or minus an hour is acceptable to most people. 

Replies to the last power company tweet started to stack up, all asking for estimates of when the power would be back on.  Some of these were residents asking for personal reasons, but some were businesses that wanted an estimate to help determine if they should close their offices or send their employees home.

I could not locate the source for this statistic, but I remember reading a few years ago that in one study, people responded saying that they would accept being out for twice as long (per outage) or twice as often as long as they received timely updates on the details of the outages they experienced. 

Businesses rely on customer communication during outages to be timely and accurate because their decision making process is dependent upon it.  While I was trying to determine if I should go home and finish out my day there to meet my deadline, businesses were making financial decisions based on the communications from the power company about the outage. 

I could only assume that the crews had arrived at the scene and the repairs had begun.  Yet there were no updates provided through any of the media channels. 

The time was now 11:22 a.m.

With smart phones, tablets and the always reachable internet, we are always online and connected.  So maybe with our technology today, our expectations have grown to an insane level where we demand information in near real time.  We want the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where” and “why” and we want it now.  Honestly I don’t see the thirst for information ever receding, but only continuing to grow especially with our power demands.

While I certainly could have picked up the phone and be placed in a waiting queue with thousands of others wanting the same information from the power company, I continued to check Twitter and Facebook for updates on the progress of the outage, all to no avail.

The time was now 11:35 a.m.

Finally my patience had worn thin, so I packed up my things and began the 20 minute trek home via the interstate.  My early-to-lunch coworkers found a propane powered taco truck nearby for lunch, thus satisfying their hunger during the power outage.    After pulling into the garage, I walked down to the street to grab the mail and I pulled out my iPhone.  The local newspaper had tweeted that according to the utility, all power had been restored. 

The time was now 11:50 a.m.

The power company tweeted three minutes later with the same information, and adding that the cause was “equipment failure” during routine substation maintenance.  If equipment had failed during maintenance, then where were the crews en route to, per the 11:02 tweet?  Unless they required a different skill set from those performing the maintenance to restore power, the crews were already at the outage sectionalizing device.  So in reality, the information at 11:02 was a “feel good” tweet to the masses, letting them know that action was taking place, and the person sending the tweet probably had no knowledge of the problem or the response measures.

This is not a rant toward the utility by any means.  It is a cry for them to use the technology available to provide better customer service.  When I read the tweet standing in my driveway, I was irritated that I had gone home, only to realize that the power had come back on in my absence, and with a return trip back to the office looming, I would lose an hour of productivity. 

How could this process have been improved? 

  1.  Immediate updates to social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) stating that an outage had occurred and describing the affected area.
    • With SCADA communications, the extent (geographical area and number of customers impacted) would have been known.
    • Maybe this can be a future option of an outage management system to provide automated Tweets for feeder level outages.
  2. Initial estimated restoration times provided to the public
    • Based on historical information, these estimates at least give the public some duration to expect.
  3. Updates from the crews on site
    • With mobile outage management software, updates can be made by the crew noting the expected duration, cause and other notes.  This can be done electronically without having to talk to a dispatcher on the radio/phone.
    • As the outage progresses, additional updates to confirm the speculated restoration times. 
    • These updates can then be sent through social media so residents and businesses can make informed decisions and not have to talk to a physical person one on one.
  4.  Final restoration updates
    • The final cause and restoration time are important in some cases.

Ten years ago people would have been happy to know that the power company was aware of the outage and that they were doing something about it.  That was ten years ago.  Today our expectations are higher of every industry, which includes the local electric power distribution company, for faster and more reliable “actionable” information.  I have no problem with outages, even if they are frequent in nature.  I would not even mind if they lasted longer than ever before, as long as during the outage I was well informed on the progress being made.  I would even boldly go so far to say that I would pay more (ok, marginally more, as I realize that everything has a cost) for this service.  The technology is in place to meet the demand of the consumer and now we must just be patient while service providers begin to embrace it.   

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