Outage management systems aid storm-ravaged power companies

But Florida utilities find IT can't do everything

Power companies have been able to leverage IT to help them respond to widespread power outages caused by the four hurricanes that have hammered the Sunshine State during the past six weeks. But limitations in some of the systems have made it hard for the utilities to streamline their repair work even further.

For instance, most power utilities in the Southeast have installed new outage management systems since 2000 to help them identify equipment causing a power disruption and dispatch work crews to the scene, said Rick Nicholson, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc.

But when a hurricane hits, power companies often recruit thousands of repairmen from utilities across the U.S. and Canada. Since those workers rarely have mobile devices that are compatible with the utility's outage management system, the power company typically can't dispatch an electronic work order to them, Nicholson said.

"That's a problem for them, and I'm not aware of any utilities that have adequately solved this," said Nicholson, who heads up Meta's energy industry practice. Repairmen that are employed by these companies are often equipped with Global Positioning System technologies or other mobile devices to receive work orders electronically. In most cases, power companies have a dispatcher call a guest repairman on cell phones to give them their work orders, said Nicholson.

For transient repairmen who don't have mobile computers compatible with Florida Power & Light Co.'s (FP&L) outage management system, the Juno Beach, Fla.-based utility provides them with either radio systems or cell phones if needed, said CIO Dennis Klinger. If cellular communications are disrupted in a particular region, transient repairmen fill out paperwork orders and return those to temporary staging sites the power company has set up in the area.

"Sometimes their technology is compatible with us, sometimes not," Klinger said.

FP&L has made extensive use of telecommunications systems to respond to the power outages by creating those staging sites, where it assembles hundreds of workers at fairgrounds or unused parking lots to coordinate work orders, materials, labor and hotel accommodations for transient workers, said Klinger.

The sites, which typically consist of between four and eight trailers, are equipped with workstations, copiers and fax machines. Generators and satellite dishes are brought in if there's no power or communications service in the area, and the utility sometimes installs multiple T1 lines to support the site and help communications with FP&L's command center.

"Our deployment of satellite communications has really helped us since the telecommunications providers are typically hit just as badly as we are," said Klinger.

Before a hurricane hits, both FP&L and Progress Energy Inc. use modeling tools to gather information about previous storm damage and current storm conditions to estimate how many customers might lose power and the number of work crews needed for restoration work. FP&L uses a combination of Unix and Windows-based systems, while Progress Energy has developed a set of homegrown applications using Visual Basic.

The modeling systems "give us a relative range, and they give us a scaling factor that we can use to start acquiring external resources to help us," said Becky Harrison, director of distribution services at Progress Energy's operations in North Carolina and Florida.

In the aftermath of a storm like powerful Hurricane Jeanne, which plowed across Florida last weekend, "our process of getting information to the field changes dramatically -- we know that they're not going to be able to get orders electronically in a storm like this," said Harrison. After Hurricane Jeanne moved on, Progress Energy assigned "feeder coordinators" -- typically local repairmen -- to handle particular areas and dispatch work orders to visiting repairmen using information from its outage management system, said Harrison.

The outage management system the company uses in Florida is driven by an Oracle database and has been "extremely valuable" for identifying customers who lost power during recent hurricanes and the percentage of customers who have had power restored. As of 5 a.m. today, Progress Energy had restored power to 91% of the 722,000 customers in Florida who were without it as of 10 p.m. EDT Sunday. The company retrieves restoration information from its outage management system to update its Web site four times a day. The company expects all customers to have power restored by midnight tomorrow.

Outage management systems have other strengths, said Harrison. For instance, Progress Energy is able to use the systems to determine an estimated time of repair for a particular area. Customers who call into one of its customer service centers then receive an automated response telling them when their power should be restored, said Harrison.

"One of the things we've found very critical in storms is that it's just as important to keep customers informed about restorations as it is about making the restorations themselves," she said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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