Navigant Research Blog

Harvey and Irma Highlight the Need for Advanced Outage Communications

— September 14, 2017

The impacts are devastating. Across Houston and larger parts of the Southeast, citizens are reeling from the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. Meanwhile, across the gulf, Florida was just hit by Irma—one of the strongest hurricanes on record.

For utilities, the wave of powerful storms not only means a rush to restore power as quickly as possible, and to as many customers as possible, but also highlights a measurable need for sophisticated outage communication and response capabilities—both before and after the storm.

Harvey Hit Hard While Irma Approached

As of Monday, September 4, roughly 280,000 customers across Texas were still without power, and utilities including CenterPoint Energy, AEP Texas, and Entergy were exhausting all possible resources to get the lights back on. And because service restoration could take weeks or months in some parts of Texas, outage communications are critical.

For example, in advance of Harvey, CenterPoint was marketing its Power Alert Service. With this free opt-in tool, customers automatically receive notifications via text message, email, or phone call whenever a power outage or other power problem is detected at or near their address. This advanced outage communications capability is enabled by the over 2.4 million smart meters installed in CenterPoint’s service territory.

Meanwhile, following Irma’s landfall in Florida, crews at Florida Power & Light (FPL) are coordinating with other state utilities to secure sufficient workforces and are commencing a military-like operation to restore power to at least 5 million affected residents. This is familiar territory for FPL, which has invested more than $3 billion toward grid modernization and storm preparedness since 2006, including the installation of 4.9 million smart meters and 83,000 intelligent devices that can help predict, reduce, and prevent power outages, and restore power faster when outages occur.

FPL customers should benefit from a multipronged outage communications system, allowing them to receive outage notifications via email, voice, or text, or view/report outages via an outage map tied to FPL’s website. The company also offers a mobile application where customers can access information about their account or local outages.

Outage Communications Best Practices

While there is no standard for outage communications across the industry, best practices include maintaining some form of basic outbound communications, including outage notification, restoration time estimates, and outage cause information. The use of web-based outage maps has grown in popularity in recent years, though the deployment process can often be resource-intensive. These tools can provide customers with a convenient and efficient means of disseminating and reporting outage information, while also preserving call center resources.

Spokane, Washington-based Avista Utilities chose to upgrade its outage communications capabilities in October 2015. Avista employed iFactor (now owned by KUBRA) to develop a new power outage map, an outage reporting and status tool, and proactive outage messaging by email and SMS text. Following the brutal windstorm that swept across the region in November 2015, the tool proved its worth.

The outage map was visited 837,500 times, registered more than 13,000 contacts to receive outage alerts, and sent and received a total of more than 228,500 messages.

More Can Be Done

Looking to Avista and others as an example, there is certainly more that can be done with regards to outage communications. For utilities in the Southeast and across the United States, the importance of this capability becomes clearer as customer expectations grow and the frequency and intensity of natural disasters continues to rise.

While basic outbound communications are now seen as commonplace, investing in advanced capabilities around proactive and personalized notifications and outage map development can further enhance outage communications and provide customers what they truly need—information and awareness in times of confusion and chaos.

 

What to Consider When Evaluating Networking Solutions

— November 4, 2016

Ethernet CablesAs the electric utility business evolves toward a bidirectional, multi-faceted model (i.e., the Energy Cloud), utilities’ need for robust, future-proof communications networks is paramount—but decision-making can seem fraught with risk. The wrong choice can quickly become a limiting factor as management teams explore new applications at the grid edge. But as distributed generation proliferates and overall energy usage falls, the need for that visibility will only become more critical—to customer engagement, demand-side management, transactional energy, load management, asset management, and more.

Traditionally, utilities have preferred to purchase their networking infrastructure, making large capital investments that they can put into their rate cases. Regulators have generally shown a strong preference for the lowest (upfront) cost approach.

Increasingly, however, utilities are evaluating the total cost of ownership (TCO) for various solutions. So where Solution A may be the most attractive in terms of initial costs, over the 10/15/20-year lifecycle of the network, Solution A may actually be more expensive—or worse, it may not be robust enough to support emerging applications.

Recently, Navigant Research was commissioned to do a TCO analysis comparing private spectrum options for utilities with other more popular networking technologies, including unlicensed radio frequency (RF) mesh technologies, existing point-to-multipoint technologies like that of Sensus, public cellular, power line carrier (PLC) technologies, and others.

As it turns out, the TCO for each of these can vary widely. The rural, low-density nature of cooperatives makes for a very different economic model than that of a municipal utility or a large investor-owned utility (IOU). The results of our analysis can be seen in the table below.

Total Cost of Ownership for Various Utility Networking Scenarios: 15-Year Time Horizon

TCO Study

(Source: Navigant Research)

 Is My Existing Network Adequate?

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems are now operated at utilities serving half of all United States meters. Many utilities will try to leverage those existing networks for distribution automation (DA) or other advanced applications. In some cases, this may be a cost-effective approach. In other cases, however, ongoing maintenance costs and denser equipment requirements will result in high costs over time. Repeater creep—where utilities must continuously add repeaters to a mesh network in order to accommodate growing capacity needs—is a potentially expensive outcome when existing AMI networks are tapped for newer DA functions like Volt/VAR control; fault location, isolation, and restoration (FLISR); or demand response.

Historically, utilities have not been fond of purchasing private spectrum, primarily due to costs, which public cellular service providers have driven higher as their bandwidth needs grow (thank YouTube on your phone for that). More recently, however, there are some private bands available to utilities that may provide a cost-effective solution. Our TCO analysis considered the 700 MHz A-band licenses, which are available today across much of the United States for a relatively modest price/MHz POP (population unit).

Private spectrum ownership is now an affordable option—in some cases, the most affordable option—for a utility looking to deploy a variety of DA use cases across a large or varied territory. When used for a combination of AMI, DA, and even substation connectivity needs, the control and flexibility that private spectrum offers can be very attractive.

For further information on the Navigant Research Total Cost of Ownership Analysis, contact Richelle Elberg. For further information on the regional availability of licensed spectrum, contact Robert Finch at Select Spectrum.

 

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