Getting the Lights Turned on Faster
The goal of every utility company is to restore power to its customers as soon as possible after a storm. Today, however, utilities are confronted with unprecedented regulatory, workforce, and financial challenges that make it difficult to provide timely storm response. These are exacerbated by the increased severity and destructive nature of some recent storms, such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and power company reputations have suffered as a result.
Caught in a Regulatory Squeeze
Mergers and acquisitions have their benefits, but if recent history is any indication, they also carry a high degree of risk in the heavily regulated utility industry. M&A transactions require government agency approval and in most cases that approval comes with dramatic cost-cutting requirements that typically result in workforce reductions. Along with attrition, those reductions have caused a severe shortage of skilled labor, which is the lifeblood of timely storm response field services. In 2011, the Center for Energy Workforce Development projected a 17 percent reduction in electric line workers by 2020. The survey also found that the size of the workforce has decreased by more than 11,000 jobs since 2011, including retirements.
An example of the M&A doubled-edged sword is the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities’ 2012 approval of the Northeast Utilities/NSTAR merger. Projections at the time were that the merger would yield $784 million in savings over 10 years – most of which would be achieved through force reductions. However, these workforce reductions would remove the skilled workers who would normally be on call to fix damage to wires and poles after a storm.
Another example is the National Grid acquisition of Niagara Mohawk in 2000. In exchange for New York state approval, the utility agreed to nearly $200 million in cost reductions, partially through workforce reductions, including buyouts and attrition.
Workforce shortages are no friend to utilities or their customers.
Storms Peak While Budgets and Workforce Decline
While budgets and the labor force have declined in recent years, the severity of weather has increased dramatically. So-called “superstorms” have placed enormous pressure on utilities to find ways to respond to storm-related outages more rapidly.
Hurricane Sandy caused destruction in 24 states along the eastern seaboard to the tune of $68 billion in damages, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. It also created utility outages that affected more than 6 million people, including more than half the population of New Jersey and about 20 percent of the population of New York.
The storm was so massive that budget-short, employee-depleted utility companies were simply overwhelmed and unable to respond effectively. In early 2013, a New York State Bipartisan Task Force report stated that “Power for 2.19 million households was out for days, weeks, and even months.” The report also stated, “Most local officials expressed dissatisfaction with their local utility company [for a ] lack of communication, disorganization, poor customer service, and slow response time.” Utility companies were also subjected to heavy criticism by traditional and social media channels.
In the winter of 2014, the Philadelphia area was slammed by a major snow and ice storm that disrupted power delivery to more than 700,000 customers. This storm (the second-largest outage in the area’s history caused) some customers to go without power for more than a week. In addition to angering customers, Philadelphia Electric spent between $80 million and $120 million in repair costs to get their customers back online.
Getting the Power Turned On
Utility outage response–and the manpower and financial resources required–depends on the cause, extent and location of the outage. Removing branches from a feeder line may be simple and fast, but rural lines may be more difficult to reach and repair. After these factors are assessed, power restoration proceeds based on getting as many customers back online as quickly as possible, starting with high-priority locations such as hospitals and police departments.
Utilities must provide a range of storm response services under the severest of conditions regardless of budgetary or staffing limitations, including:
Assess the situation: Utilities must determine where the outage occurred, what caused the outage – ice buildup, fallen tree or something else – and the scope of the outage. Crews and equipment are allocated based on that assessment.
Protect public safety: Crews are dispatched to clear live power lines and repair equipment that poses hazards to public safety. At the top of the list are public health and safety facilities such as hospitals, clinics, police departments, and water, sewer, natural gas, and telephone utilities.
Repair transmission lines: Transmission lines from generating facilities rarely fail, but when they do, the impact ripples across thousands of customers, so they receive top priority.
Repair substations: Any substation within the outage area is checked for abnormalities. If problems are discovered and can be repaired immediately, power can be restored quickly to large numbers of customers.
Repair feeder lines: Feeder lines serve large numbers of customers–anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000–so crews patrol individual lines looking for downed limbs and trees.
Repair tap lines: Tap lines, which feed 20-30 homes each, are next on the list to be repaired.
Restore power to individual homes or businesses: This restoration process takes the longest because crews are now checking and repairing service lines that run between the transformer on the pole and individual homes and businesses.
Getting Ahead of the Storm
Given today’s challenging environment, reliability and maintenance plans are critical to storm preparation and ensuring that outages are responded to in a cost-effective and timely manner. PPL is one of a few electric utilities that has been doing this with forward-thinking and investing in their grid. Smart grid technology—also called distribution automation–can reduce customer minutes interrupted compared to non-automated circuits in the same geography. The smart grid automatically reroutes power when equipment fails or outages occur, minimizing outages and their effects. The technology also detects and isolates outages, containing them before they become large-scale blackouts and ensures that electric power is restored quickly.
Recently, PPL won an award for their SmartGrid technology.
The Southeastern Electric Exchange has recognized PPL with two Industry Excellence Awards. PPL’s automated power restoration system uses pole-top sensors to detect outages, a central computer to quickly analyze the problem, and remote-control switches to reroute power and restore many customers to service–before a work crew has made any repairs.
‘This technology means customers affected by power outages get their lights back on faster, in many cases in less than two or three minutes,’ said Dave Bonenberger, vice president-Distribution Operations. ‘It’s been a major improvement in our system’s reliability and in our service to customers.’
Thanks to a wide range of reliability improvements, PPL customers are experiencing 30 percent fewer outages today than they were in 2007. With additional investments being made every year, reliability is expected to increase by another 15 percent over the next five years.
PPL’s second industry award came for its use of technology to help maintain its power line rights of way.
The company uses geospatial technology to give it accurate three-dimensional views of power-line corridors, and it also has switched to a paperless work management system. PPL uses light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data to provide information on obstructions in the right of way – such as trees – that may pose a threat to reliability.
‘We’re using technology and data like never before to deliver a more reliable system for our customers, and lower costs at the same time,’ Bonenberger said.
Building Relationships With Reliable Third Parties
Budget and workforce issues are critical to every utility’s ability to provide effective and timely storm response to their customers. To overcome these obstacles, many utility companies are reaching out to third-party contractors (such as Katapult Engineering) to provide cost-effective, critical storm response solutions before outages occur. Our solutions our effective because they leverage data collection and documentation systems so that utility companies can afford to invest in Smart Grid technologies.
Providing Smart Grid Support
As the utility industry trends toward smart grids, the need for fast, professional, field surveys has increased. Katapult’s smart grid data collection services are designed to deliver data accurately and quickly so utilities can determine (among other things) if enough space exists to attach additional equipment to a utility pole, and if the remaining strength of a pole can support additional smart grid equipment. The data also allows utilities to verify pole tag identification and utility pole condition, and perform smart grid cellular signal strength audits.
Fast and Accurate Data Collection and Analysis
Katapult field engineers use a proprietary OSP data-collection process for measuring cable heights and gathering other pole information. Katapult has been using photogrammetric methods for years, and just recently published an article on the accuracy of katapult Pro.
Simplifying Joint Use Attachments
In addition to the support role Katapult plays for PPL and other utilities, Katapult’s utility survey services greatly reduce frustration associated with the installation and administration of utility pole joint use attachments. Katapult greatly improves the accuracy of data collection so everyone has the information they need to add attachments, our survey services increase the safety of workers in the field, reduce utility liability and speed up project completion times, thus actually honoring FCC timelines.
The Utility Industry’s Go-to Storm Response Company
Katapult Engineering offers leading-edge preventative services, maintenance and storm response technology to utilities for more than 20 years. Katapult’s field team uses the company’s OSP data collection methodology to quickly and accurately collect information utilities can use to decide if poles need to be upgraded or replaced, or if smart grid equipment should be installed. Katapult’s OSP method is safer, faster, less expensive, and simpler than conventional methods of pole measuring:
Keeps field service engineers away from a pole’s power space
Requires only a single photograph to deduce meaningful data
Requires only one or two field technicians instead of a large team
Eliminates the need for project engineers and other skilled staff to be present to collect data during rideouts
Katapult’s method is simple, effective, and based on years of experience with OSP field services and data analysis. Depending on the utility’s project requirements, Katapult can handle everything from data collection, to Make-Ready or Pole Loading Analysis, or simply present the information the utility’s engineers need to handle the work on their own. Either way, utilities can save time and money, free up important staff to work on more technical issues and get the lights back on faster for their customers.
Contact us for more information about how we can help you get your customer’s lights turned on faster after an outage.