Out...But Safe

Customers See Outages in Different Ways

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Customers See Outages in Different Ways

By Paul Hull

We are all customers. We expect what we purchase to work, whether it’s a car, cell phone, dress, television, computer or the power for our home and business. When a purchase or service does not work as expected, we are annoyed. At first, that is. If the causes of failure are beyond the providers’ ability to control, we are less annoyed. If we must vacate our hotel room because another guest started a fire, we are less annoyed with the hotel management than with the people who started the fire. It’s the same with our power. If the outage is caused by a natural phenomenon such as a hurricane, ice storm or violent weather, customers are more understanding.

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Photo Courtesy of PSO

Customers sympathize with utilities that have to repair and reinstate transmission and distribution after a natural disturbance such as a storm. If my whole neighborhood is out of power, it’s more acceptable than if my house is the only one affected. So, there are different levels of outages to customers. On a less positive note, I have spoken with consumers who believe power companies should be able to provide exactly what they want, when they want it and at a price as close to free as possible. And, there are utility professionals who believe all the solutions are in the consumers’ hands—that they need to change their demands and lifestyles. Much of the underlying perception on both sides of this outage prevention issue seems to assume that someone else should be doing something about it. One of the greatest fears is that decisions to solve power supply problems will be become so political that they are solved by people who know nothing about power provision.

The reasons for an outage are seldom made to look simple, possibly because the media are constantly pressuring us to blame others for everything. Remember the power failures several years ago. It was 2003, wasn’t it? See how soon we forget what were major issues! The aspect of the power failure that irritated most people was that, somehow, a lack of accountability emerged. Among those listed as responsible, apart from the electric utilities involved, were regional transmission organizations (RTOs), the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Independent System Operators (ISOs), state public utilities or public services commissions, and regional reliability councils. It was not, and is not, clear where the lines of responsibility overlap or overrule. Are we sure even now who was responsible then or who is responsible now for the prevention of recurrences? Add to that list of responsible parties the electric utilities, who have the very real responsibility of delivering electric power to us all. Should the public utilities commissions of our states be more powerful and active? Who should enforce national standards for reliability? What sanctions should be demanded against those who do not try to improve our systems?

Most professionals in the utility sector agree that our transmission systems were never intended to take the stresses imposed on them in the last decade. Deregulation in many states might have encouraged the transfer of bulk power from one part of the country to another using an electric grid that was not designed for such a job. Transmission line overloading is still seen as a serious problem. The electric grid was originally designed to handle mostly local requirements, not bulk transfers from state to state or region to region such as Ohio to Michigan to New York—states that are not neighbors. There have been regular, positive results with the interconnections in our electric grid, but they tend to be forgotten when a problem in Ohio can cause newsworthy problems in Michigan, New York and Canada. Should one utility be able to inflict its problems on another utility in a different state or province? Who should monitor and supervise that? An issue usually neglected or forgotten is that, after the 2004 summer blackout, fossil fuel and nuclear plants did not come back on line quickly—they can’t. At the same time, it was reported that wind and hydroelectric plants quickly returned to service, as soon as the grid’s safety was confirmed. Planning for our future must also address the fuels we use, the power sources for our power sources.

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During the Outage

When my home loses power, my first reaction is that I’m the only one and everybody else is probably okay. That’s the first reaction of most people. When looking out the window and seeing that all my neighbors have lost power, I am..... relieved. A householder does not want to be the only one with faulty equipment, in part because it means he or she might have to spend money to remedy the situation. So, a neighborhood outage is, in some ways, easier for a utility to explain and control than a single problem. If anything, the crews who come to repair downed lines after a damaging storm are welcomed and admired. They are not a cause of grief for the utility involved. If there is muttering among customers, it’s usually because someone in one part of the community always seems to get better, faster treatment than others. If that is a valid complaint, change it. If the residents of Buckingham Square and Winchester Place seem to get priority over the householders on the south side, across the railroad tracks on Lincoln and Grant streets, that will cause negative reaction. When there is an outage, every customer is a customer. No one minds if the hospital gets preferential treatment, but nothing personal should ever be involved.

This shouldn’t need to be asked, but have you checked your readiness situation lately? The easiest way to be prepared for outages, big and small, is to be prepared. The right vehicles and tools should be available, and everyone possibly involved should know where they are. If the outage is bigger than anticipated, you should know where to get the necessary, extra help you’ll need.

Utilities are especially respected for their willingness and ability to help each other in times of crises. For the utility workers, having the right tools available is vital, but good communications may be a forgotten secret to successful work—communications with the customers, if necessary, and also communications with the people at the utility office who are organizing the repair schedule. In all communications between field and office it is essential that both parties know what they are talking about.

“At all levels, the people communicating should know what they are talking about” is a comment I’ve heard from experienced professionals in the electric power, community access television (CATV) and telephone utility sectors. “Just because the accountant or purchasing manager says he or she knows all about the technology doesn’t mean he or she is the best person to issue instructions to field operatives” was another observation from people with experience in field and office communications. Those opinions touch sensitive areas. In any organization there is a chain of command, and there are also experts for every facet of the business. For a utility’s emergency and outage communications, the sender and receiver must be experts in the field and operation involved. This may be more important now than it was five years ago. More and more people think they are technology experts because they own the latest instruments for sending and receiving messages, but the tools are only part of the communication equation.

The well-prepared utility can cope with outages and similar emergencies with ease and efficiency. It seems that, while all utilities dislike outages and emergencies, most are prepared to handle them. Customers appreciate that. When the lights go out, we know it won’t be long before they are back on again.

A final word should be safety. Ours is an industry that promotes and supports safe procedures. Outages are a good time to re-emphasize this to our customers. “Don’t touch anything!” would be a good slogan to give customers before the outage season begins. Fallen wires that sizzle frighten most people, but they might intrigue children. It wouldn’t hurt to visit schools and tell schoolchildren of all ages that any fallen wires, during or after an outage, should be left alone. Keep away! Don’t touch! Stay alive!

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