Forward-Looking Utilities Invest in the Next Wave of Outage Management Technologies to Future-Proof the Grid

Author: Clinton Davis, Vice President of Distribution Industry Solutions and Smart Grid, Ventyx, an ABB company
Join Ventyx, an ABB company Webinar on the 2nd December where they discuss Achieving Reliability, Safety and Customer Satisfaction in Outage Life Cycle Management with IT/OT Integration.

The average summertime high temperature in Austin, Texas, these days is 97 degrees. By the end of this century, the average high could be 103, with 20 days a year hotter than 110 degrees, according to a study the city recently undertook. Other than increasing the frequency of “How hot was it?” jokes, what does this projection mean in real life? For one thing, Austin needs to plan carefully as it builds its future electric grid: “If you’re going to build a substation that’s going to cost tens of millions of dollars but it can’t operate over 110 degrees, it’s really important to be thinking about that now,” Zach Baumer, the city’s climate program manager, recently told The New York Times.

Forward-looking U.S. utilities are taking the same path as Austin – studying the future carefully, and creating strategies to meet that future fully prepared. There’s no need to look as far ahead as the turn of the next century: as the devastation of Hurricanes Sandy and Ike attest, American power grids are already being battered by storms of unprecedented strength and frequency. It makes sense, then, that the New York State Public Service Commission has created a “storm scorecard” to assess utilities’ behavior before, during and after major storms, and that one major component of the score is “advance preparation.” Many other state regulators are following New York’s lead, mandating high levels not only of preparedness, but also of effective customer communication to keep communities informed when power outages are expected, and when they’ll be over.

In partnership with regulators, innovative U.S. utilities – including United Illuminating in Connecticut; Memphis Light, Gas & Water (MLGW) in Tennessee; ComEd in Illinois; NationalGrid in the Northeast, and Connecticut Light & Power, among others – are moving to future-proof themselves by applying the latest strategic capabilities of information technology (IT) to their extensive arrays of operational or “industrial” technologies. This convergence of leading-edge IT and OT – the long-predicted Internet of connected things, people and services – will deliver a basket of outage management benefits to utilities and their customers when storms bear down on their service areas.

Storm damage projections made possible by the IT/OT convergence of the Internet of things, people and services will give utilities a head start in dealing with storms – protecting infrastructure, sending repair crews and materials where they’ll be needed and communicating accurately with customers about the likelihood and duration of power outages. The technology will be sufficiently accurate to predict which substations, transformers, power lines and other critical devices will be damaged by a hurricane or magnetic storm before it occurs. The specificity will drill down to such details as the types and health of trees surrounding power lines – cottonwoods, it turns out, are more susceptible than other trees to crashing down on lines.

The Internet of things, people and services combined with increasingly sophisticated use of social media outreach by utilities allows the utilities to deliver a crucial, and most-demanded, element of customer service: telling customers when power will be restored. This allows customers to decide how to cope with the outage – should they just go about their normal routine because power will return soon, find a friend’s house or café with electricity to spend the hours until restoration, or book a hotel or report to a shelter if power will be out a long time?

Forward-looking utilities are also investing in social media analytics not just to talk to customers, but also to listen to customers in ways that improves communications. IT/OT convergence plus smart algorithms applied to Twitter, Facebook and similar social media will alert utilities when outage-related keywords start popping up in news feeds and tweets. Utilities will crowdsource their own customers to find out immediately when and where problems occur, speeding their reaction, repair and restoration of power. This will further boost customer satisfaction by identifying issues before they become problems.

This next giant step in serving and protecting utility customers is just beyond today’s horizon. The Internet of things, people and services technology to make it happen is being developed and deployed right now. What’s needed for success is to make predictive models as accurate as possible. This can only be accomplished if utilities and related providers of environmental information team up to provide the information those models require. I visit many U.S. utilities, and at each stop I urge the utility to share its storm-related data. As they equip their assets – from massive machines to repair trucks and their crews – with Internet-connected sensors, utilities are currently overwhelmed with data they can’t use right now. But the day is swiftly coming when powerful data management and business intelligence/analytics – the convergence of IT and OT – will use that data to create strategies for keeping the grid healthy and reliable in the face of inevitable disasters.

Just as the city of Austin isn’t waiting for the future to surprise it with overheated catastrophe, the wisest U.S. utilities are investing in future-proofing grid infrastructure now rather than after the next superstorm. The technologies may be new, but the concept is as old as Benjamin Franklin’s dictum, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”

Clinton DavisClinton Davis, VP, Utility Distribution Solutions, Ventyx, an ABB company

Clinton Davis is Ventyx’s Vice President of Distribution Industry Solutions and Smart Grid Strategy, based in Sacramento, California. Over the last six years with Ventyx, he has held roles in consulting, product marketing, and product management. Clinton focuses on solutions that free up precious time, enable better resource management, and make people’s lives more fulfilling.

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