Control Centers Must Adapt to The Digital Age

Electricity is no longer a convenience, but a necessity. Every day, we use more items that require some form of electrical power and we expect them to function whenever we need them. This has been driving enhancements to the power grid for more than a decade, but what does this mean for the heart of the electric utility, the control center? To prevent another 2003 Blackout, control centers must adapt to remote operating capabilities, respond quickly to information requests, and ultimately, update older computer applications.

In the digital age, an extended loss of power can quickly move from an inconvenience to a significant issue. When customers can remotely monitor their home from work, or track a package to their doorstep, not having up-to-date information about power outages is a major concern. Customers expect to know why their power is out and when it will be restored. For a utility to provide top tier customer satisfaction, they must address four key items:

  1. Customers Expect Timely Answers

Telling the customer to wait is not a viable solution. Utilities have installed advanced meters and remotely operated devices to respond to outages more quickly, but these changes place a greater burden on the operator. This results in additional computers on the operator’s desk. Although operators still work in isolated locations behind secured doors, today, they are more in touch with the world around them thanks to communication developments. While this is an improvement, it means higher expectations from customers, media, and government officials to receive immediate answers to their inquiries – leaving operators with less time to analyze situations and prepare responses.

  1. Organized Data Trumps Additional Systems

Instead of more systems, operators need advanced tools to allow them to monitor statuses, organize data, and track processes more effectively. They need single integrated systems for each major function with standard terms and methods to work cohesively with their peers and other departments. These needs are driving upgrades to existing computer applications and merging of data systems between legacy companies and lines of business (i.e. generation, transmission, and distribution).

  1. Integration Is Everywhere

Systems for maintaining assets that have moved to graphical systems are now being integrated with systems that handle energy and outage management. Call-out systems for off-hours emergency work are being integrated with outage management. Request systems and switching order systems are being integrated with energy management. Paper logging systems are being replaced with electronic logging and reporting. Devices are being operated by telemetry and linked to energy management via SCADA systems. Seamless integration between various systems is critical and dependent on the right technology to do so.

  1. Affordable Power Requires Operational Efficiency

With society’s dependence on the digital infrastructure, power must be affordable so all can have access. To keep electricity costs as low as possible, utilities seek to become more efficient, which often results in mergers and acquisitions, allowing for consolidation of back office operations. However, merging two different organizations is challenging, especially since the processes and applications can vary widely, even between two neighboring utilities.

These four changes require time and expertise to make them real. In a control center which never sleeps, knowledgeable resources can be difficult to procure and selecting the best path forward is critical. Now is the time to take steps and prepare your operations for the next event, because if you don’t ask yourself the tough questions now, the media and regulators certainly will later.

Additional Reading on the August 2003 Blackout from Official Sources:

North American Electric Reliability Corporation Final Blackout Report

S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force Final Report

Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers Power & Energy Society Blackout White Paper