Climate change is bringing record high temperatures, extreme cold, and unpredictable weather patterns across the country. This has contributed to an increase in energy consumption as well as a surge in power outages. In fact, an analysis of government data by the Associated Press revealed that power outages from severe weather have nearly doubled in the past two decades. In addition, much of the United States’ power grid is part of an aging infrastructure that needs either repair or replacement. Many utilities are also prioritizing integration of renewable resources into the power grid. Combine aging infrastructure with utilities’ evolving modernization priorities and you get high demand for line workers.
Today’s workers juggle more responsibilities on tighter deadlines — from installation and maintenance of transmission and distribution lines to restoring power after a storm. At the same time, there remains a labor shortage in the industry. To maintain efficiency, maximize productivity, and limit downtime, line workers need to be equipped with the right tools. Reliable mobile computing solutions and new generations of innovative technology help keep staff as productive as possible.
A Tough Job Calls for the Right Mobile Solutions
When a power outage occurs, utility workers often must perform tasks in challenging environments. An outage in a densely-populated community with high voltage power lines requires experts to identify the source of the outage and conduct repairs immediately. This ensures affected customers get power back on in the shortest amount of time. Amid this, harsh weather conditions such as high winds, heavy rains, snow, and even strong glare from direct sunlight can delay recovery times and affect employee working conditions.
Consumer-grade computing solutions are often unable to withstand these environments. Workers must be able access critical information — such as outage and inspection mapping — in order to service or repair lines, regardless of conditions. Rugged solutions that have clear visibility in sunlight, protection against violent rain, driving sleet, or heavy snow, and that can be operated while wearing gloves are essential tools. This way, information access isn’t compromised by an ineffective or potentially damaged mobile devices.
Utility workers constantly travel between transmission towers, vehicles, and central office hubs. The mobile devices they carry must be able to adapt to different scenarios in remote work locations. For example, a rugged, yet versatile, tablet or 2-in-1 solution gives utility workers the ability to carry a portable device as they climb an electric tower and operate the tablet with one hand. When traveling between sites, line workers can put the tablet away in their shoulder strap or belt pouch. This same device can then be docked in a utility van and workers can examine data collected while still in the field. The device can even be hooked up to a keyboard for more robust reporting and computing needs.
Connectivity Powers the Utility Workforce of the Future
The ability to access real-time data from phone calls, software applications, and digital interactions improves the customer experience, as well. But, without connectivity, the power of data cannot be realized. This is critical in rural communities where broadband access can be limited. Similarly, in recovery situations where connectivity has been compromised, workers need to stay connected — whether through private LTE or CBRS networks — to facilitate two-way information flow with other crew members and utility personnel. Connectivity also allows managers to precisely track down teams. This helps utility workers stay on track and out of unnecessary danger.
With the support of intelligent software applications, field personnel can directly pull up service tickets, inspection requests, and order details from their mobile devices. Important information now lives digitally at a worker’s fingertips. This means the manual process of filing paper forms and re-documenting the status of a project is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Connectivity has established itself as the foundation of successful digital transformation in utilities. According to Gartner, organizations that deliver highly digitized business capabilities and enable flexible work for critical operations gain competitive advantage and position themselves as relevant players in transforming markets.
The Era of Location Intelligence in Utilities
Location intelligence provides indispensable information about the utility digital infrastructure. This includes both above and below the ground. Location information combines software, data, and services, and it’s treated as the blueprint to guide utility projects. Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), part of location intelligence, gives utility companies the ability to survey and map out specific areas remotely before a project kicks off. In the past, it would take a long time for computer systems to produce accurate mapping data. Now, GNSS, when integrated with mobile devices and combined with fast connectivity, shortens the time required to collect data and reduces data clashes.
Location technology such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), on the other hand, help measure and model data in unique and powerful ways. For instance, when planning for a new transmission line, utility personnel can visualize power distribution and ensure power lines distribute energy to the exact location where needed. This information is then shared with line workers. They are able to view digital maps and schematics on mobile devices, keeping important information in one place to assist with utility managers’ decision-making process.
Another important aspect of location technology is its ability to predict and manage outages. GIS helps utility companies keep track of important data including service locations and power usage. When a power line is overloaded with electricity, GIS technology can help identify areas that might encounter potential outage. Combined with technology such as machine learning, data patterns can be visualized and utility companies can react quickly to a potential issue.
Looking Forward: Utility Workforce in 2023
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of power line professionals will grow only 2 percent between 2019 and 2029. As the labor shortage challenge continues, mobile devices with intelligent software applications and services can help lower barriers for line workers entering the industry and modernize workflows to further advance the utility infrastructure. The movement to digital is becoming the new industry standard.
Chad Hall is Strategic Account Manager of Utility & Enterprise Mobility Solutions at Panasonic Connect