To improve reliability and enhance customer engagement, many utilities are testing new technologies and enhancing their business processes to be more resilient and consumer focused.

Collaboration Strengthens the Customer Connection

Jan. 26, 2015
The future of outage management will engage the customer with analysis of emerging data sources to improve restoration and forge new customer relationships.

Utilities are striving to improve service reliability and are under increasing customer expectations to provide timely and accurate outage and restoration information. Many utilities are testing new technologies and enhancing their business processes to be more resilient and consumer focused.

However, there are barriers. Emerging data sources can be difficult to integrate into traditional data sets. The level of visibility and automation in the distribution system is still relatively low when compared to other infrastructure-dependent industries with which utility customers are already familiar. Utilities have been restoring power for more than 100 years and have adopted several new technologies and best practices along the way. But because of proprietary and sometimes rigid solutions adopted over the years, continued improvement in this field requires changes to many inter-related systems and processes.

Everyone believes in realizing efficiency, capturing change and building the next-generation utility. This is an industry united by engineers, technologists, business people and wires — a whole lot of wires. Across the U.S., a story has been building of a grid organized to make faster, more meaningful decisions; a grid that honors affordability, reliability and safety; a grid ready to put the next-generation customer first. But, when the lights go out, is the industry equipped for the next generation of outage management?


Enter collaboration. A new effort is underway to bring together the strengths of an ecosystem of providers to address the emerging priorities and the associated technology barriers. By seamlessly integrating a solid “core system” for network analysis with an evolving ecosystem of additional products and online services, a next-generation outage management solution has been developed. Through this combination of traditional outage management systems (OMS) with information technology systems and other solution components, such as social media mining and smart grid analytics, utilities can leapfrog the limitations imposed by the current generation of utility technologies.

The next-generation outage management solution approach, advanced by OMNETRIC Group, has collaboration at its core and is based on five key principles:
• A core platform, augmented only by the capabilities a particular utility needs or wants, selected from a broad menu of vendors
• The integration of any third-party applications and online services that bring innovation and value through the use of open standards and protocols
• A data layer and analytics applications that are platform agnostic; the solution provides in-the-cloud or on-premise analytics options using a variety of leading technologies
• Comprehensive integration back into operational technologies to allow execution of actionable insight
• The use of diverse data sources and multiple media paths to customers and associated stakeholders to deliver increased customer value and increase satisfaction.

The ability to augment a strong core platform of network applications with whatever new applications and services come available from any provider, based on an established integration architecture, could potentially lower total cost of ownership by increasing the options for functionality and how it is provided. Avoiding obsolescence and vendor lock-in would dramatically increase flexibility in the pursuit of additional solutions and improvements.

When integrating front and back office functions, the real gain is in productivity and that is nowhere more appreciated than in working storms. When outage management, materials and scheduling work seamlessly, crews can better focus on the task at hand.

How It Works

When an outage occurs, events unfold in seconds and decisions need to be made quickly. To make the best decisions in today’s environment, a utility needs to be able to analyze multiple data streams of varying types of data to maximize outage-related intelligence.

But ingesting outage-related data is not enough in today’s hyper-connected bidirectional world. As such, utilities are working to engage customers to provide meaningful information about an outage or issue in whichever way customers wish to receive it across a variety of channel options, including social media. While doing all of this, a utility is expected to be prudent in its allocation of resources throughout an outage or an event.

By better integrating the back and front office, the utility is able to leverage the additional data streams by providing operations personnel with more confidence about the details of an event, offering more data to service critical customers and giving customer-facing employees the ability to proactively communicate with customers.

In early 2014, Duke Energy line technicians, service crews and other personnel faced a massive restoration effort after a rare coastal ice storm hit North Carolina and South Carolina. Future outage events will take advantage of emerging data sources to direct response and add to the depth of the customer connection.

Thoughts Become Actions

A pioneer of several concepts embedded into the next-generation outage management solution, Duke Energy is translating thoughts into actions by challenging developers, vendors and peer utilities to re-imagine how to connect to the customer of 2015. A cornerstone of the strategy has been to ask these questions:
• How are customers changing?
• What communications tools do they prefer? Do these change based on demographics?
• How do customers want to be updated and engaged when issues happen?
• How does a utility stay on top of grid events and customer concerns?

The vision focuses on addressing these tough questions by identifying new ways to serve a new generation of customers whose expectations are as dynamic as the technologies they have embraced. Duke Energy recognizes that technology exploration, business process change and the smart customer are changing how business is done. It’s a vision that unifies customers, the utility and the industry while optimizing the management of grid events.

The social media mining component, from OMNETRIC Group’s outage ecosystem partner DataCapable, has been in beta evaluations at Duke Energy and is in a pilot phase with other utilities. DataCapable is working with Duke Energy to mine social media (Twitter, Facebook, weather data and RSS newsfeeds) to develop insight on customer engagement and outage intelligence. While it is still early in its evaluation at Duke Energy and several other utilities, the component’s potential has made evaluators both excited and “anxious” (with mixed feelings on what that means) to obtain more meaningful data from customers.

Such nontraditional sources of data tend to polarize the operations community in terms of the true value they provide over conventional operations data. Some question the value of such data at all. Others feel the ability to leverage such data represents a tremendous opportunity to defer or avoid some or all of the cost of installing ubiquitous sensing and communications used by today’s utility systems to improve visibility.

However, few argue the value social media provides for communicating with customers or refute the potential it provides in building a more effective channel to customers to offer new and innovative products and services as the industry evolves. Today, the same social media being mined to improve outage intelligence can provide valuable insights into customer relationships to prepare for anticipated shifts in industry business models.

In addition, the automated customer interactivity embedded in this next-generation outage management solution (the ability to auto reply, for example) has evolved from pioneering efforts such as ComEd’s outage communications system, deploying a common set of outage information across multiple channels.

Listening to Industry Needs

Duke Energy is but one example where community-engagement strategies and customer communications are rapidly evolving. The next generation of utility software requires both the vendor community and utilities to listen to the needs of the customer. And listening is exactly what the next-generation outage solution collaborators have been doing in order to build components of the next-generation outage management and consolidated customer care solution.

Smart Grid Is the Smart Customer

At DistribuTECH 2014, Randi Zuckerberg — the sister of Facebook Cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — kicked off the event with a list of social media trends that utilities should take advantage of now. While Zuckerberg may not be a utility industry expert, she certainly knows social media. To sum it up, the smart grid is the smart customer.

Customers are looking for information faster, on the devices they choose, on the platforms they want. They are not asking for social, mobile, local. They expect it. But for utilities, this is a new way of thinking. The foundational requirements are interoperability and ease of integration to upgrade to existing platforms. When challenging the thought process about what data defines an outage, utilities soon realized it goes well beyond wires and poles. Actionable data can come in many forms:
• Networks of smart sensors, meters and distribution devices
• Weather data to predict, track and correlate grid events
• Use of public and internal data for operational benefits
• Opportunities to engage and inform customers faster than traditional means
• Ability to ingest atypical outage data sets for both event visualization and confirmation.

The value of a software application is only increased as interoperability increases. It is a direct translation of Metcalfe’s law: the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected system users. Add more connections, add more value.

By offering flexible services and ease of integration capabilities, emerging vendors with creative data sets can provide almost instantaneous value to existing systems by preparing systems to leverage smart distribution devices, distributed generation incorporation and flexible capabilities to analyze data in additional systems. The future of outage management looks very promising.

For customers, it will translate into faster estimated restoration times, well-informed customer services representatives, updated customers and improvements to regulatory benchmarks such as the system average interruption duration index (SAIDI) and customer average interruption duration index (CAIDI). More important is the fact that collaboration and interoperability drive value, and the smart grid is the smart customer.

Convergence and Value

Many utilities are now looking at how they can not only leverage these concepts to improve customer satisfaction and interaction, but also to monetize that customer relationship as part of the utility’s future operating model. It is interesting to note how an enabling technology used to improve outage intelligence could be the catalyst for a new way to establish customer relationships. However, it is yet another example of how the convergence of mainstream information technologies with utility operations technology is changing the transmission and distribution business. In summation, the smart grid is the smart customer.

Implementation Demo

The first implementation of this collaborative concept will be demonstrated live at DistribuTECH 2015 by OMNETRIC Group and will feature several solution components:
• Core OMS functionality provided by Siemens Spectrum Power 7, providing the flexibility to integrate a variety of systems such as alternate user interfaces, dashboards and reports
• A standards-based solution and integration architecture from OMNETRIC Group
• An advanced platform for analytics provided by Accenture (Accenture Advanced Analytics Platform)
• DataCapable’s UtiliSocial solution for social media integration and mining, and interactive multichannel customer communication
• Hooks to work management technologies such as SAP.


The authors thank Peter Disalvo, DataCapable cofounder and director of engineering, for his contributions to this article.

Brittany Lyke ([email protected]) is the digital strategy manager for customer-facing social media at Duke Energy, focused on developing an integrated social media customer program in alignment with traditional contact channels to drive increased customer satisfaction.

Wade P. Malcolm ([email protected]) is the North American CEO of OMNETRIC Group, focused on enabling the convergence of information and operations technology for the benefit of utilities. A former T&D engineer, he enjoys developing and applying advanced technologies to the grid to improve the products and services utilities offer. He is a professional engineer.

Editor’s note: OMNETRIC Group was launched in 2014 as a joint venture between Siemens AG and Accenture and is dedicated to the delivery of integrated IT and operational technology solutions and services. The idea behind OMNETRIC Group is to bring together an energy technology product portfolio with systems integration, consulting and managed service capabilities.

Mentioned in this article:

Accenture |
DataCapable |
Siemens |

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