Consumers have zero tolerance for poor communication and uncertainty – particularly in times of crisis such as widespread outages due to extreme weather events. They expect instant access to timely, accurate and useful communication on a channel of their choice, and failure to meet that expectation can drive negative sentiment that leads to irreparable brand damage, regardless of how effective the operational response may have been.

For utilities, communication with customers during major outage events is as important as the efficiency of the restoration itself; and yet, despite rapid development in analytics, modelling, and communication technology, many customers are still unable to access real-time accurate information about power outages.

Considering that only 24% of utilities executives feel very well-prepared to manage the challenges of extreme weather, how can utilities leverage technology to develop the timely, accurate estimated time of restoration (ETR) so that their customers no longer feel powerless during outages?

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The one day assessment 

There are three critical components that empower utilities to generate and disseminate accurate, timely restoration information.

First is the damage assessment (DA) itself. Traditionally, this labor-intensive process involves teams walking the grid to identify and isolate the cause(s) of an outage – which is still manually noted in some cases – before deploying a crew to conduct repairs. Even more advanced utilities with access to mobile field devices are finding their crews reverting to traditional paper or call-in methods of reporting.

Completing a thorough damage assessment as quickly as possible is essential to providing customers with the clarity they need, as well as identifying the resource requirements and developing priorities. The ideal timeframe? 24 to 48 hours in a major event where restoration can take ten or more days.

Achieving this target requires utilities to leverage multiple technologies to capture and catalogue the damage in full. For example:

  • An OMS (Outage Management System) can help to identify which circuits have been affected and cross referenced with other operation technologies such as Advanced Meter data. 
  • Suspected damage can be identified through aerial inspections, such as satellite imagery. 
  • Appropriately sourced insights from external stakeholders, such as from first responders, which can be uploaded through customer-facing apps. 
  • Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and advanced analytics can also be used to assess images regardless of their source. 

Once these sources of information are aggregated, recorded, and associated to the assets in the geographic information system (GIS), they can be loaded into the OMS to identify embedded outages and tie them to specific sectionalizing devices. 

A model strategy

With a clear understanding of the damage, utilities can determine more specific ETRs early in the restoration process and provide customers with more meaningful information than a global ETR offers. Using on-site crew feedback, the detailed outage information gathered during the damage assessment can be used alongside resource availability to feed pre-built algorithms and create customized circuit or customer-level updates.

These algorithms empower utilities to model and assess multiple restoration scenarios and provide location- and customer-specific information and ETRs early in the restoration process. Once the ETRs for each customer are established, an automated analysis can be developed to identify expiring ETRs, so that any unforeseen delay can be proactively managed. 

This level of personalization and accuracy is invaluable, as it can help customers avoid costly, and even dangerous, mistakes. Take for example the owner of a small grocery store who has to make a decision whether or not to put a hold in their supply of perishable goods; or the nursing home on limited generator capacity that may need to evacuate residents. These are dangerous and costly decisions.

Sending the right message

With customer specific ETRs in place, the final hurdle that utilities must overcome is the abundance of customer communication channels available.

Almost every utility still runs a call center and hosts an outage map on their website, but these one-way channels put the responsibility on the customer to find out what’s going on – and cannot be relied upon if fixed phonelines are down or if internet connectivity is also affected by the event.

Two-way conversation channels such as outage apps - which carry the added advantage of push notifications and chat functionality – as well as social media and text-based chatbots allow utilities to connect with their customers on their terms. During severe events, SMS texts are often the most reliable way to get information across limited communication availability. Customer feedback can even be used to inform aspects of the response and form a living picture of the scenario as it unfolds.

Bringing these channels together seamlessly, and ensuring that all customers receive the latest, most relevant information, requires alignment across IT, operational technologies (OT), and the business as a whole. It’s important to keep in mind that not all customers are residential, so getting the right information to the right stakeholders is essential. Take for example local emergency managers and first responders, the level of detailed information demands a different message to enable a coordinated response.

In addition, developing that level of alignment requires frequent stress testing of the IT/OT systems and telecommunications capacity, so that systems meet customer demands during high transaction volume times, such as during major storm events. Although complex, embracing customers’ preferred channels can help alleviate pressure on the OMS by proactively providing clear, timely information.

Conclusion 

Outages are a very human problem, but in this case, many hands do not necessarily make light work. To ensure that customers receive the clear, personalized ETRs they need to make informed decisions, and avoid negative backlash, utilities should use technology and analytics to support their DA and ETR processes, and ultimately, deliver a better business experience. Please contact us to continue the conversation.

Miki Deric

Managing Director – North America Utilities


Dan Stevens

Senior Manager, Resources – Operational Resiliency Lead

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