The purpose of utility-system automation, in a nutshell, is to bring utility service into the 21st century. Intelligent systems, data endpoints throughout the grid, and two-way communications linking those components to the back office will provide a much clearer picture of system operations—and greater control over those operations.
These advancements will help improve customer service by allowing utilities to respond sooner to situations that cause outages—but only if workforce processes make use of the intelligence these new systems provide.
“I believe the efficient operation and maintenance of the distribution network is the last fertile ground for dramatic cost reductions in utility processes,” says Scott Harris, vice president of the energy business unit at Sapias in Cicero, N.Y. “A lot of money is being spent on planning and design, and the mechanism of workforce and mobile-asset management is to complement that and hone processes as new intelligent technology is brought to bear.”
The intelligent grid is still a new concept for U.S. gas and electric utilities, and thus none have fully implemented its capabilities to maximize the efficiency of workforce operations. A few recent deployments, however, are lighting the workforce-management path for 21st century utilities.
United Illuminating Co. (UI) in Connecticut in 2003 installed a wireless mobile workforce management system from SPL WorldGroup (since acquired by Oracle), at the same time it deployed CellNet automated meters to almost all of its 323,000 customers, and a new SAP customer-information system (CIS). Already the SPL system is closely integrated with UI’s CIS, and later this year the company plans to integrate these systems together with a new outage management system (OMS)—also being provided by Oracle/SPL.
Today UI’s CIS generates work orders for the SPL system, which communicates updated information back to the CIS so customer-service personnel can inform customers about restoration progress on a real-time basis. Integration with the metering system allows line workers to perform diagnostics in the field and test the integrity of UI’s system from the meter all the way back to the CIS. GPS technology on UI’s field vehicles allows the SPL system to coordinate crews and generate the most efficient routes for performing work. It also tracks customer service-call appointments and helps keep workers on schedule.
“When we worked off paper we had about an 83 percent rate of keeping appointments,” says Joseph Thomas, associate vice president and general manager of client fulfillment at UI. “Now we’re at about 96 percent. We’ve seen a significant improvement in our ability to keep commitments to customers.”
UI is embarking on the next phase of its smart-grid development this year, as it installs its new OMS. The OMS will provide UI with a range of new functions, including storm and trouble management, system modeling and diagnostics, call tracking, data analysis, and detailed reporting. Integrating the workforce management system with the OMS will allow UI to further automate crew dispatching processes and improve outage-restoration capabilities.
“The type of damage will determine how long it takes to restore power, so we may or may not get quicker restoration,” Thomas says. “But at the end of the day we will more effectively manage our crews. The system will provide dispatchers and field technicians with more information, so they will know if something was missed.”
Eventually UI might take the next step of integrating its OMS and workforce management systems together with its distribution-automation systems, including those provided by ACS in Atlanta. “No doubt the technology is there,” Thomas says. “With radio-controlled reclosers and distribution automation, dispatchers can make decisions about switching and restoring customers without getting a new crew out. That might become part of the long-term strategy.”
Boston-based NStar recently deployed a new fleet-automation system to serve its 1.1 million electric customers and 245,000 gas customers. Its new Sapias Inc. mobile-resource management system is focused on improving outage-response time as well as the efficiency of maintenance and construction processes.
The system places sensors on mobile workforce equipment—such as bucket trucks—along with GPS, cellular and Internet technologies that allow dispatchers to collect and record real-time data about the equipment’s location, operation, and status. Dispatchers and fleet managers use this information to optimize work processes and monitor safety and efficiency protocols.
To test the system before the complete roll out, NStar deployed the Sapias equipment in its Cape Cod fleet, monitored the results and made work-process changes that reduced excess mileage and truck downtime. Based on this test, NStar then deployed the system to its entire mobile workforce, serving 81 communities.
“They used to put a pool of operations and maintenance jobs into a geographic area,” Harris says. “People would pick jobs to do in their area. With our system they focus specific crews and work in priority order, which allows more efficient routing. Miles driven went down and productivity went up.”
Additionally, Sapias improved NStar’s asset-management capabilities by providing data about vehicle utilization. With this data, NStar can schedule vehicle service according to hours of usage and error codes, and it can deploy underutilized vehicles to locations where they are needed, reducing the need to buy new vehicles.
NStar eventually may integrate the Sapias data with its CIS, so call-center operators can provide customers with more detailed information about outage-recovery efforts. NStar proved such capabilities in December, when a storm hit Cape Cod and caused a significant outage. “An NStar corporate affairs person was on site, logged on to our system,” Harris says. “He was able to tell government officials where crews were, how many were working on the outage, and what areas were already restored.”
Such capabilities will not only help utilities like NStar improve their efficiency and customer-service capabilities, they also might bring government-relations benefits as companies demonstrate the payback on technology investments.
Utilities frequently merge to capture greater scale economies. Where two utilities must buy and upgrade separate CIS systems, a merged utility can use just one—passing the savings on to customers and shareholders.
Utility business processes, however, notoriously are difficult to integrate. Particularly when merging assets are separated by geography, capturing scale economies is much easier said than done.
In January 2006, New Orleans-based Entergy launched a project to harmonize O&M processes, including supply-chain management, at the nuclear power plants owned by the Entergy South and Entergy Nuclear business units. Entergy hired Ventyx—which was formed from the combination of workforce-management firms Indus International and MDSI—to standardize O&M, procurement, and engineering processes. Also, the new processes were optimized to streamline workflow, improve efficiencies, and integrate with Entergy’s PeopleSoft ERP system.
By creating a fleet model for operating its nuclear plants, Entergy hopes to maintain the facilities more consistently, share their outage workforce more effectively, and provide better metrics for analyzing and improving work processes.
“If everyone is using different practices and procedures during outage management and execution, it’s difficult to transfer and leverage resources,” says Terry Maxey, vice president of utility solutions for Ventyx in Atlanta. “Bringing everyone into the same system allowed Entergy to become more efficient about using resources, and to eliminate some contractors.”
While Entergy is using the Ventyx work-flow processes only for its nuclear fleet operations, the company is planning future implementations in its transmission and distribution businesses. Entergy already uses MDSI systems for mobile workforce management in its distribution operations. As the utility installs more automation systems in its power grid, it may replace its home-grown asset-management and supply-chain systems with Ventyx applications to take advantage of the same scale economies and integration benefits it has gained in its nuclear fleet.
“Better utilization of utility resources is not just limited to the T&D grid, but can be found in the generation business too,” Maxey says. “With less chance of personnel error and more effective asset management, standardized business practices are a great tool for preventing unplanned and forced outages.”
River Bend Nuclear facility photo courtesy Entergy.