Sandy's wrath reveals smart options for aging grid

Technology, integrated management systems help utilities pinpoint problems, speed repairs, reduce outages

By John McDonald

IEEE's John McDonald

Much of the nation's electrical infrastructure relies on technology that has been around since the beginning of electricity itself -- power generation, transmission, distribution. Superstorm Sandy underscores the vulnerability of our aging power grid as wind, flooding and lightning left more than six million people throughout the Northeast without electricity.

In New York City, several pieces of power equipment are underground in flooded subway tunnels. A ConEdison spokesperson said it's the "worst damage in ConEdison history."

 No matter the cause of an outage -- a July blackout in India left 620 million people without electricity after a summer heat wave stressed a fragile national grid -- residents expect power restored quickly.

Smart grid to the rescue

Smart grid technologies and integrated management systems can help utilities more quickly pinpoint outages and make repairs. Critical power users like hospitals and refineries needed electricity to maintain operations throughout the storm. The lights stayed on, for instance, at Rockefeller Center in the heart of Manhattan as GE provided an uninterruptable power system that kept electricity flowing through the 70-story tower.

Utilities can start their smart grid and management system strategies by considering the following checklist:

Trouble Call Notification

Improving response time starts with initial outage reports, so a utility's Outage Management System can analyze calls to pinpoint and prioritize outages for the initial crew response. A utility must provide customers with the scope and status of the outage, including estimated restoration time. Interactive Voice Response systems should be utilized to take the majority of calls by utility call centers. Utility web portals and supplemental call-taking applications allow utilities to achieve high volumes of calls.

Automated Outage Reporting, Notifications Via Smart Meters

Smart grid technologies, such as smart meters and Advanced Metering Infrastructure communications, can be integrated with smart grid solutions such as Outage and Distribution Management. Automated outage notifications make it possible for utilities to initiate outage response before the first customer call. During restoration, utilities also can identify potential "nested outages" that primarily go undetected with sections of the grid that rely on analog parts. 

Distribution Automation

Identifying the location of a fault more effectively reduces interruptions faced by customers. The selective installation of Distribution Automation with fault-detection capabilities on key portions of the circuits (midpoints/tie-points) can have a dramatic impact of reducing both the number and duration of outages. Utilities also should examine low-cost distribution monitoring devices that can provide fault detection at key points of the distribution network, via AMI and other telecommunication networks. This dramatically can reduce the time to initiate circuit reconfiguration in achieving partial and full circuit restoration.

Reduce Outage Dispatch, Investigation Duration

Utilities can reduce the dispatching time during outages by implementing Mobile Workforce Management solutions integrated with their OMS. When the transmission of basic outage information is automated, outage dispatch and crew efficiency can be improved. Lower priority operational work (tree trimming, voltage problems, etc.) also can be scheduled using the scheduling and routing capabilities of Workforce Management solutions. Large numbers of outages can be dispatched directly to mobile-enabled crews that do not have to depend on voice communications with remote dispatchers for instructions and reporting restoration activities.

Timely Outage Restoration, Confirmation, Notification

When field crews restore outages, it is important that the OMS be updated as quickly as possible. Delay in updating the OMS hinders the ability to update customers as they call the utility, or when the utility calls customers to confirm restoration. Tools such as MWM allow individual crews to enter the restoration details directly without having to communicate the information to central dispatchers who are busy managing other crews. Utilities with an AMI solution can integrate smart meter data to provide automated capture of restoration, which can also be used to detect any nested outages that can cause extended restoration times for customers.

Communicating to Customers During Restoration

Customer perception of a utility's restoration response is directly affected by how easy it is to obtain status information. Proactive communications by a utility positively affect how a customer rates the experience. Automated IVR calls, utility web portals, text messages and evolving technologies can be considered so that customers are updated and estimated restoration times are revised. When restoration activities can take days or weeks, as in the aftermath of Sandy, outage prioritization and wide scale circuit damage cause extended durations of lower level network outages. When utilities provide periodic status reports and estimated restoration times, they can improve perception among the public, media and regulatory agencies.

Decentralized Dispatching Operations

During high-volume periods, it is essential for utilities to remove dispatching bottlenecks and make use of all available resources so that priority outages can be dispatched, investigated and restored as quickly as possible. Centralized dispatch must be supplemented with the ability to allocate work directly to remote districts where outages and crews can be managed by local teams. Utilities must have remote dispatch capabilities and mobile solutions tools that can be utilized by decentralized dispatching locations removing the dependency on centralized dispatch centers to allocate this work.

Severe Storm Preparation -- Tools, Processes and Crew Availability

Severe weather, obviously, is a major challenge for utilities managing reliability, costs and customer satisfaction.  In advance of Sandy's landfall, utilities across the Atlantic Seaboard mobilized their employees as well as tree removal crews and out-of-state linemen. GE, for instance, provided support through strategies, hardware and software that would push utilities toward efficient restoration. Damage assessment processes and tools must also be available and integrated with restoration tools that provide the ability to document major damage during severe weather events and allocate work packages to crews so that major repairs can be scheduled.

Operational Reporting, Analytics      

Decision support can best be achieved when smart grid data is available to line managers and other managers so that resources can be allocated according to the level and priority of work in progress. Utilities must have flexible reporting tools that can be dynamically updated in high volume storm situations so that the restoration response can be managed according to the changing priorities and volumes of work. Operational reporting and analytical capabilities are also essential in managing the expectations of customer, media and regulatory agencies that will ultimately assess a utility's restoration response based on their ability to provide restoration status by municipality and other aggregated customer groups.

Historical Reporting and Analytics

OMS and DMS solutions are used to capture reliability data during restoration processes and provide the resulting operational data that will reflect the performance of the utility during specific time periods, weather events or an entire year. During weather events, the quality of the data may be diminished due to the hectic environment in which it is captured. A key step that must be performed after a weather event is to ensure accuracy of the data captured - especially high impact outages (outages with high number of customer minutes interrupted). Tools and processes must be in place to help identify and correct data omissions and errors. Successful utilities also make use of advanced reporting tools to review Key Performance Indicators that did not meet targeted goals and identify areas of potential process improvements that can be implemented.

Smart grid technologies can help utilities speed the restoration process. The faster that power is restored, the more quickly families regain comfort, businesses attain footing and communities reclaim normalcy. The improved communication and automated pinpointing of service problems enable utilities to overcome disaster challenges more easily while they enhance their reputation with subscribers, regulators and other stakeholders. 

About the Author
McDonald is an IEEE Fellow, past president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society and past chair of the IEEE PES Substations Committee.  He is director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Energy's Digital Energy business.