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Intelligent Utility explores the strategies and realities of delivering information-enabled energy and building a smart grid, focusing on people, process and technology, economic models, finance, and public policy.


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Outages and the customer: more work to come

Several trends and missed opportunities may have conspired to overwhelm utility responses to outages in an era of grid modernization, hampering their ability to give customers good restoration estimates, even when they seemingly have the means to do so.

This is important in and of itself because utilities naturally seek to please their customers, not aggravate them, and just as importantly because utilities have to track traditional metrics that measure the frequency and duration of outages to meet regulators' demands. At its extreme, a poor track record in managing outages and related expectations may dampen investor enthusiasm for a particular utility. Not good.  

Further, as we noted in yesterday's column—"Is Saving Money the Right Smart Grid Pitch?"—selling smarter grids by claiming that interval meters and advanced metering infrastructure will help customers "save money" and produce "shrinking bills" has been accompanied by claims that millions and billions of customer dollars should be invested to increase reliability and shorten outages. 

In both cases, those outcomes are possible, but in many cases, not yet attainable. Another way of stating the matter is that hype has outrun reality and the power industry's credibility with customers and regulators—those who pay for improvements and those who approve of cost recovery—is at stake.  

We'll feature some thought leadership in tomorrow's column around the subject of why outage management systems with a customer focus may not yield the promised results, coming from an operations person with long experience who has specific ideas on the hurdles to better performance by outage management systems (OMS) and the systems that OMS interact with.

Just in the past couple weeks, we featured two related columns, establishing that this issue is real. I wrote "Managing Expectations on Outages?," in which an Accenture executive described the contours of the challenge and another by my colleague, Kate Rowland, editor-in-chief of Intelligent Utility magazine, "Making Electricity Outage Communications Consumer-centric."  

The latter piece emphasized consumer-friendly communication channels over which to send outage information and time-to-restoration updates, as well as updated service territory maps that might provide an alternative means of informing the public of progress. 

But a utility's various systems still need to identify the cause and extent of the outage, the solution, an estimate of how long restoration will take and thus, what to tell the customer.

It's the latter issue that we'll take up tomorrow, in an attempt to generate further thought leadership and other perspectives on the matter. The themes will be legacy systems, conversions to newer, more sophisticated systems, the need to audit the data in legacy systems to ensure that the new systems have correct data and the issue of scale. 

Just the issue of scale in recent events has called utilities' outage management abilities into question.

While generalities are difficult and citing individual cases without intimate knowledge of their status on implementing various systems would be unfair, it's possible to look back to last fall when in the Northeast a hurricane-turned-tropical-storm followed by an early winter snowstorm devastated several states and wreaked havoc with nearly every utility therein. 

Extended outages became headline news, prompting at least one top utility executive resignation, attorney general investigations in two states into possible criminality and to regulator-driven grilling sessions with utilities to see what went so badly wrong. 

Of the two answers we'll explore tomorrow—one being the labor-intensive conversion of legacy systems to modern, interacting, customer-focused systems, the other being scale—certainly the issue of scale is suggested by widespread, violent storms that might have overwhelmed utility systems with hundreds of thousands of "last gasps" from digital meters. 

Join us tomorrow for that discussion. I have a feeling we may be overwhelmed by our audience's gasps, though those will hardly be their last. 

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