Coming, Ready or Not

Disruptions, of one sort or another, will occur. Be prepared.


Disruptions, of one sort or another, will occur. Be prepared.

by Paul Hull

A few weeks ago, the electricity in our part of town went off. It turned out to be a malfunctioning part that fell and knocked out another part, and it was all back to normal in an hour. The crews that came to repair the problem could claim two vital credits. They recognized the problem as soon as they saw it, and they knew how to fix it. Recovering from disruptions, expected or not, greatly depends on how well you have prepared for them.

Good preparations can include equipment and people. In the May 2014 issue of Utility Products, I was intrigued by an article by Dave Bryant of CTC Global about grid reliability. The author gave examples of disruptions that were less dangerous and expensive than they could have been because the utilities involved had invested in better equipment for transmission. I recommend that you read the article and draw your own conclusions.


"These are just a few examples of how modern technology, when fully validated and tested, can be leveraged to help improve grid efficiency, capacity and reliability," Bryant said.

There is an abundance of equipment available for utilities for many purposes, including repair and recovery after disruptions. You can review some of the magazines you receive to see what is available and recommended. Most people with whom I have had conversations about disruptions tell me that people are a bigger challenge than equipment. I suppose the worst thing you can hear is that utilities have all the right equipment to recover from disruptions but they don't all have the right people to install that equipment. This must be a reason why so much recovery is done nationwide by outside (or outsourced) companies. There are excellent contractors who specialize in recovery procedures, from events such as hurricanes and storms, at all times of the year. They do efficient work. But, it still seems advisable to have your own employees at least be aware of the problems associated with disruptions because there is always something they can do to help.

Recovery is Always a People Problem

The people involved in outage recovery are not only utility employees. A much greater number includes the customers who have lost their power. The outages that cause the worst reactions are those that occur for no apparent reason; there has been no thunderstorm, no hurricane, no ice storm, no flood, no tornado, nothing natural that is unusual or menacing. Customers often assume that such outages-and some, like my recent one at home, last only a short time-are the fault of the power company. While the number of outages, if you include the short, less than two-hour versions, is much greater than is usually publicized, the reaction of the public may tend to grow more irritated because so much of what we-the-public does depends on an increasing demand for electric power. The outage can affect customers in their offices, homes, at the store, when they are supposed to be relaxing, at any time they are using electricity. Any time, today, means any time. We have become so dependent on electric power that any outage will affect something and somebody in today's lifestyle in the US.

There are people who are genuinely afraid when the power goes out; they need reassurance, not neglect or mockery. A few years ago, my 80-year-old neighbor's power was cut off by a fallen branch. He needed power for medical reasons. It was early Saturday morning and the young utility representative 0who came to check the problem said "he couldn't solve it, so the old guy would have to wait until Monday, wouldn't he?" He showed no sympathy, no concern for the customer. No utility needs employees like that.

Utilities that know they are likely to face a season of disruptive, dangerous, damaging weather always prepare for the worst. Practical, friendly relationships with representatives of a community-including fire and police departments, city hall, churches, schools and all the organizations that a community enjoys-go a long way towards helping people quickly recover after a major storm, tornado or hurricane strike. Keep the community and your customers well informed, before, during and after a storm. In that way, you can effectively work together to get life back to normal as soon as possible. The practical and praiseworthy aspect of such a philosophy is that it recognizes that the recovery from any outage does not involve only utility employees but also the whole community.

In a report I recently read, more than 50 percent of the customers asking about power outages claimed those power outages caused major problems for their households. Many customers in those states where they believe they cannot survive, let alone work, without air conditioning, said they would pay more for power if the provider could guarantee outages would always be less than four hours. Is that possible? "Not with the condition of much of our infrastructure today," many will say. But would such a guarantee be possible with an allegedly perfect infrastructure? Think of all the outages that could be caused by unforeseen circumstances-such as terrorism or vandalism. What can we do to prepare for outages that are not caused by severe and unusual weather?

The public sometimes deduces that those short outages of two hours or less are caused by a lack of preparedness or even by a lack of commitment by the utility. Let's hope they are not right.

A few years ago, the Department of Energy estimated that power outages cost US consumers $150 billion annually or about $500 for every man, woman and child. The number of outages affecting more than 50,000 people more than doubled from 1991-1995 to 2001-2005. Have we improved on that statistic? Smart grids include the ability to self heal, the ability to automatically detect an outage, reconfigure the network to minimize the number of people affected, and then to pinpoint failed equipment and dispatch crews to resolve the problems. Self-healing networks require much more data-some estimate a thousand times more data than utilities presently maintain-and much more reliable data. Achieving 100 percent accurate, real-time data reliability will require two things: a cleanup of existing network data and changes to existing business processes to optimize workflows and ensure and maintain the desired level of data quality. Tools have been developed to streamline information flows and improve data reliability by breaking down the barriers between traditional information silos, replacing paper flows with electronic information flows, and eliminating duplicate or redundant information.

Customers who depend on electrically powered medical equipment-such as my old neighbor-should consider a battery back-up system. They should also understand the situation and how to use the back-up system. It is even feasible to arrange alternative accommodation for such a medically challenged person during an outage. Among the advice for customers during and after a storm, utilities remind customers to stay at least 20 feet away from downed power lines. And stay as far away from anything, such as a metal fence, the downed line is touching. And, if the basement is flooded and electrical outlets are covered by water, don't wade in to see if everything is all right. It may not be. You may not be.

Cooperative Efforts

The smoothest recoveries from outages seem to be those where providers and customers are in harmony, where each party involved knows what it should do and does not try to do the others' duty. There have been emergencies where people with self-appointed authority but no relevant expertise have hampered recovery efforts for the general good. The utility provides the expert repair service; the customer provides cheerful cooperation when it's appropriate.

How do you restore power? To whom? This is how many utilities see the situation. The first step is to restore power to substations. Then the utility repairs feeders with high priority customers, such as hospitals, water and sewer facilities, police and fire facilities, nursing homes, and customers on life support systems. The utility then repairs major three-phase lines that serve large numbers of members in residential areas. Then comes repair of rural three-phase lines, followed by single-phase branch lines, transformers and individual services. It's a clear, practical, understandable system of priorities-and it should be published so customers will know the procedures. It is not, of course, favored by everybody! "Why are we so far down the list?" some customers ask. The human factor for all utilities when there is an outage is that so many of the affected customers think they are the most important. Having a published plan or recovery from a disruption, and sticking to it regardless of phone calls and alleged importance of this or that neighborhood, will help to allay that problem.

You could also publish an easily understood set of questions and answers for customers. Include issues such as how a customer may be ready for an outage; what to do when the power goes out; reporting an outage; how to behave during an extended outage; cold weather precautions; any special advice for farm and commercial customers; and correct procedures about handling trees on your property, especially when there's an outage and you can't tell if your power lines are energized.

One result of disrupted power that seems to be neglected is its effect on community businesses. It would be a helpful service for utilities to advise and encourage their business customers to have prepared recovery plans. An outage can cause days or even weeks of trouble for a business that relies on computers for both its operation and its income. Each business will have its own particular problems, and they should be addressed by experts. And, it would be good if the utility advised even the smallest businesses about procedures for equipment recovery.

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