Electricity plays a vital role in our everyday lives and many of us take it for granted. It is important to have an uninterrupted supply of power. Utility customers generally do not concern themselves with how power is generated and the back end activities that take place to restore power; they rate utilities based on their ability to generate and deliver a reliable power supply.
Utilities work hard to devise plans before and during emergency situations to restore power quickly and keep customers satisfied.
Although it is impossible to prevent natural disasters from wreaking widespread havoc, utilities can be prepared to restore the power supply as quickly as possible.
Emergency planning has a great deal of importance to utility companies. These companies rely on lessons learned during previous events to ensure emergency preparedness and restoration of service. Emergency planning and power restoration techniques used by utilities originated after the heavy scrutiny of past events by regulators and local, state and federal officials.
Electric utilities prepare year-round to handle emergency situations by conducting exercises and drills for tackling significant outages. From a customer perspective, the success of these drills lies in how effective and efficient their utility has performed in restoring their service.
Power restoration after the occurrence of a natural event involves handling intricate tasks safely and efficiently. Executing a quick restoration process requires management of significant logistics, skilled workers and equipment.
When there is a forecast for a pending natural event, utilities prepare well in advance, organizing skilled workers, equipment, materials and support staff. In some scenarios, lodging accommodations and staging areas need to be arranged for the influx of field personnel.
So, how do utilities restore power and what are the priorities for power restoration? Utilities need to first perform a damage assessment to recognize the affected distribution lines, transmissions lines, substations, tree damage, etc. Based on the assessment, utilities prioritize the restoration service based on criticality. Higher priority is given to hospitals, fire stations, water treatment plants and other essential facilities. Once those areas are restorned, the goal is to restore customers starting with the largest blocks of outages.
During a power restoration, a utility company's command center plays a pivotal role in handling operations involving communications, logistics and materials arrangement for 24 hours a day until the power is restored to all customers.
The following are the skilled resources whose services are required to carry out the power restoration process and their roles:
- Damage assessors – Accurately analyze the damage and estimate the loss.
- Dispatchers – Monitor and respond to system disturbances by directing workers to restore power.
- Managers – Manage the resource allocations for power restoration.
- Logistics team – Arrange logistics for field personnel to carry out the restoration.
- Field personnel – Restore power lines.
- Service engineers – Inspect for damage and restore power plants and substations.
Partnerships Are Important
Every utility needs to have a detailed plan for restoring power after a natural event. The first thing the utility needs to concentrate on is safety. Utilities setup a priority list for power restoration based on criticality of the service. As a result of the frequent outbreaks of storms and severe weather, electric utilities need to act quickly, safely and efficiently to restore power to its large customer base.
To aid in this process, investor-owned electric utilities in the United States developed a mutual assistance program that helps to restore power efficiently. These mutual assistance programs are based on voluntary agreements between utilities operating within the same region. So, mutual assistance programs play a significant part of power restoration and contingency planning.
The electric utility industry maintains a strong track record for high levels of reliability. This was made possible as a result of the voluntary partnerships between utilities through the mutual assistance programs.
The importance of these partnerships became apparent in cases of devastating storms like Sandy in 2012, which struck 24 states and affected nearly 10 million customers' power supply. During major power outages, the mutual assistance process facilitates faster recovery by increasing the size of the workforce by borrowing skilled restoration workers from other utilities.
For triggering an effective power-restoration process, it is highly important to have a damage-assessment process in place. Assessing the severity of the damage helps in estimating the number of crews and equipment required for the power restoration effort.
An automated damage assessment solution can be simple to use and helps in accurately reporting the severity of the damage. Such a damage assessment solution should be customizable based on utility company requirements. It also should contain the ability to work offline if necessary. A damage assessment solution should be able to capture the images of the damage and should be device-independent so as to work in a wide variety of portable devices.
Once that damage assessment has been completed, how do utilities manage and track the workers and equipment?
During the power restoration process, there are several items that must be tracked in order to service the customer with prompt and efficient service. For handling a large-scale restoration effort, it is important to manage resource requests, logistical information and track personnel movement. In this technology-driven age, most of the electric utility companies know the importance of technology in emergency management. Any technology solutions have two goals:
- Emergency preparedness
- Incident management
Being on top of emergency preparedness and incident management helps electric utilities prepare for any type of natural or man-made disasters and manage responses to a variety of incidents. Most electric utility companies deploy procedures for emergency planning and incident management, which have their own set of guiding principles that can be found in the National Incident Management System.
Technology at electric utilities is evolving at a fast pace. For instance, a smart grid is the computer-automated version of the traditional electric utility grid, with ability to communicate with all devices associated with the grid. Most of the devices in the grid now are enhanced with sensors that can collect information from meters, fault detectors and much more. With real-time communication between the field device and the network operations center of the utility, the industry is progressing at a faster pace than ever before.
With the advancement of electric utility technologies, companies can fine-tune and control devices from one, centralized location. As utilities strive to become more proactive and prepared for any natural disasters, man-made threats or accidents, the creation of incident command system-based measures and new technologies can help get utilities back online should disaster strike.
Jason Singer has been the director of Macrosoft's Utilities Practice since May 2005. Singer manages all aspects of Macrosoft's utility product portfolio, including Resources on-Demand, Assessments on-Demand and Outage Central. He works closely with dozens of major utility clients to delivery technology solutions that solve emergency restoration challenges. Singer has presented at many leading utility conferences, including DistribuTECH, Marcus Evans and EEI, as well as at numerous other regional mutual assistance meetings.