When the Lights Go Out

May 1, 2012
Seattle City Light improves customer service with outage management.

When asking line workers and dispatchers what they do, they will say, with pride, “I keep the lights on.” But outages are one of the biggest challenges for any electric utility. However difficult it may be to restore power, it is the critical part of business utilities have attended to for years.

This is the work utilities generally do well. The task that can be challenging is keeping customers informed about what is going on during an outage, when they will have power again and why their power was interrupted in the first place. In the information age, utilities are expected to have tools in place to provide customers with this kind information in real time. Seattle City Light, one of the largest municipal-owned utilities in the United States, is doing just that.

The Event

In December 2006, Seattle City Light's customers experienced one of the most devastating windstorms in decades. The storm left approximately 180,000 customers without power, representing almost half of the utility's service area, and caused a tremendous amount of problems for the utility, including 89 downed electric poles, 34 miles (55 km) of downed wire, 65 downed feeders and 100 transformers that needed to be replaced. The extensive damage challenged the utility's ability to restore power, and while most customers had their lights back on within two days, some were without power for more than a week.

With the help of 40 line crews and 10 tree crews, the utility logged 58,000 hours over eight days for restoration operations. Internally, though, the utility struggled to keep up with the copious volume of paper it had to sort through to make informed decisions and provide better information to its customers. The storm demonstrated Seattle City Light's need to modernize the tools and systems it used to respond to power outages. Sometimes with disaster comes the opportunity for improvement, and Seattle City Light saw an open window to move into the future.

After the Event

To operate efficiently and provide excellent customer service, utilities must ensure customer service representatives, dispatchers and technicians are in sync with one another at all times. This was certainly one of the driving factors in Seattle City Light's decision to deploy Oracle Utilities Network Management System. The utility needed a highly scalable and proven solution to connect its disparate working parts.

In 2007, Seattle City Light reviewed its internal response to the devastating windstorm it experienced several months earlier, hired a consultant for an external review and asked other utilities with extensive emergency-response experience to provide peer reviews. Through that process, Seattle City Light received recommendations on how to improve its storm-response planning and develop procedures that, ultimately, would enable it to provide better customer service and communication options to its customers.

Implementing the System

In June 2009, Seattle City Light began working with a systems integrator (SI) on the path forward for its outage management system (OMS) implementation, and through September the team focused on requirement sessions involving dispatchers, crews, and call center and communications staff to prepare them for the changes coming down the pike with the new system. In October of that same year, the utility moved forward with the system design work, which also involved cross-functional user teams. Concurrently, the utility's IT group worked on designing interfaces with its geographic information system (GIS) and customer information system (CIS).

In February 2010, Seattle City Light and its SI began building out the system and completing development work; testing followed in June and July. Then, just eight months later, in October 2010, the utility began the initial stage of its operational system by going live with the first phase of its project, which included implementing core functionality of Oracle Utilities Network Management System. This new functionality enabled Seattle City Light to handle large storms and enhanced its interactive voice-response system (IVR) so customers could call and report outages as well as get an update on restoration status.

Seattle City Light's primary goal was to enhance its customer service, specifically, restoration information during an outage. In April 2011, the utility went fully live with its OMS for approximately 100 call center users, 10 dispatchers and 80 Seattle City Light staff, expanding its capabilities to include an automatic customer callback feature that alerts customers when their power has been restored. Now, if power is not restored in a specific area, customers can alert the callback system, which then produces an automatic trouble report alerting Seattle City Light to respond. This callback feature also has helped Seattle City Light improve detection of nested outages — that is, a smaller outage within a larger outage — thus reducing outage time and improving the efficiency of dispatching work crews.

Further, in the second phase of its project, Seattle City Light launched a Web workspace that provides remote users with access to operations maps and enables them to more effectively provide crew management support in specific service territories. The Web client also includes functionality that provides remote users with access to outage data, and detailed crew information and functions, allowing decentralized support during storms.

Through the system, Seattle City Light receives internal automatic notifications in the event of an outage that include information such as the number of customers affected by an unplanned outage; number of major customers, such as industrial sites, affected by an unplanned outage; specific customers affected by an unplanned outage; outage-restoration notifications for specific customers; and frequency of outages on a specific device.

Brighter Skies Ahead

The Oracle-based software uses customer calls and information it gathers from monitors on large feeder-line breakers to identify outages. As dispatchers assign crews, and repair crews identify the cause of an outage and make repairs, they are able to share that information with everyone else using the system. Additionally, customers can check outage information anytime using a map on Seattle City Light's website. The utility updates the information on the map every 15 minutes.

For storm management, Seattle City Light can now calculate estimated times of restoration based on historical restoration data (for example, outage type and location) and available and planned crews. The utility also can perform storm optimization what-if studies to improve crew staffing requirement estimates and optimize mutual-aid strategies between utilities.

The system includes several additional features:

  • Integration with existing data from its CIS, GIS, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, and IVR system into a centralized, real-time database. This guarantees the integrity of the data from the disparate systems in use at Seattle City Light and ensures the utility can see near-real-time concurrent data across the organization. In the future, Seattle City Light also hopes to integrate advanced metering infrastructure data.

  • The ability to access information — including manually entered crew location data — in real time, which enables Seattle City Light to quickly direct workers to an outage site in case of an emergency, increasing crew safety and efficiency. Seattle City Light also can access automatically updated information by graphical maps and tabular lists.

Seattle City Light is on the road to continued customer satisfaction improvements as it uses the new system. The utility's intent is to provide better outage information, improve media relations by providing more accurate data, enhance storm decision support (for example, what-if studies), improve executive management awareness of storm-restoration status and processes, and decrease costs associated with storm restoration.

Lessons Learned

Although Seattle City Light is still in the process of evaluating the product and its impact on the business, it is able to offer some lessons learned about the implementation process:

  • Ensure key dispatching personnel (system control center) are part of the implementation team

  • Secure guidance from others who are using this system

  • Work with GIS data early; get data correction as complete as possible before implementation

  • Create a strong cross-functional team to participate in the design sessions for the system

Seattle City Light has gained several tools through this implementation:

  • A real-time distribution network operations model from the substations down to the customer with outage and restoration information that can be shared throughout the utility

  • The ability to share information with the public, so customers can be better informed about outages

  • A tool for the utility to plan for resources during a storm

  • A platform for personnel throughout the utility to see restoration progress as well as the network operational state (for example, distribution circuit state).

A Lasting Investment

Today, with increasing pressure on utilities to improve their outage-response capabilities, it has become clear improved technologies can assist utilities in meeting customers' needs for information during outages. When working to reduce outage times, it pays to employ a solution that can help streamline crew management, safeguard workers and the public, enhance customer service and monitor system status. Seattle City Light looks forward to experiencing the benefits of this new investment in technology in the years to come.

Joyce Miceli ([email protected]) works with the customer care division at Seattle City Light. She has worked with managing customer installations and projects, and is currently working with business process redesign projects. Miceli served as the business functional lead for the OMS project.

Tracye Cantrell ([email protected]) served as project manager for the OMS project. She manages new application development within the information technology division at Seattle City Light.

Company mentioned:

Oracle | www.oracle.com

Seattle City Light | www.seattle.gov/light

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