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Finding your passion

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Eric Charette's picture
Senior Vice President & Executive Consultant GridBright

Mr. Eric J. Charette currently serves as a Senior Vice President and Executive Consultant for GridBright.  Previously, Eric was part of the Hexagon leadership team in the role of...

  • Member since 2012
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  • Apr 21, 2016
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As a young electrical engineer working in my first field job for Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), I was responsible for ensuring the safe and reliable operation of an electrical distribution system for 40,000 customers in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. As part of my duties, I provided engineering support for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of distribution system.  I had been out of college for just over two years, having graduated in the winter of 1999 from Michigan Technological University in Houston Michigan where I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, specializing in power systems.

None of that prepared me for Monday, June 11, 2001 and the aftermath.

Toward the end of the day, I was meeting with the line electricians; something I did at the end of every day.  Usually I got updates from them on the work accomplished during the day and we talked about the plan for the following morning.  I specifically remember as we wrapped up, Ralph Bauman, one of the lead line electricians, told me that he would see me tonight.  Given the fact that I was the only engineer in the site, anytime there were severe storms, I would report in to work with the linemen on call for restoration planning.  I had not checked the forecast, so I thought that Ralph might be referring to the rec league software team that we played on together.

I had no idea what was approaching and how it would impact my career.

The storm struck WPSC's service territory in Oshkosh at approximately 9:30 P.M with thunderstorms, and straight line winds ranging between 75 and 80 mph and lasted for nearly 30 minutes.  The National Weather Service stated that Winnebago County received between 3 and 5 inches of rain within a short period of time.  The entire Oshkosh district was affected from the Outagamie County border to the Fond du lac County border and from east of Omro to Lake Winnebago.  Areas that suffered the most damage were within the City of Oshkosh, and especially north of the Fox River in the downtown area and to the east of Lake Butte des Morts near State Road 110.  It was estimated by officials from the City of Oshkosh, that approximately 25% of the trees in the city were lost during the storm.

The storm resulted in blown-down and uprooted trees blocking roads, or crashing onto homes, vehicles and power lines. Although most major roads were cleared quickly, numerous side streets were inaccessible due to downed trees and power lines for most of the week.  WPSC’s Oshkosh district has 8 distribution substations serving 17 electrical feeders.  Shortly after the storm, 15 feeder breakers had locked out, cutting electricity to approximately 37,700 WPSC customers. 

This number represents nearly 99% of the total number of customers served within the district and I was in charge of restoration.

In just 30 short minutes, I was thrust into a massive storm restoration effort.  While I had worked several smaller storms previously, the coordination to restore power to the city, and management of hundreds of line crews from all over the company now lay rest on my shoulders.  I was supported by our local management team, who handled many of the logistics of large storm management including handling mutual assistance, the crew management, meals, lodging and so many other vital activities that were part of our documented storm procedures, but rarely were dusted off and put into action. 

On Tuesday, the morning following the storm, the Oshkosh City Government officials declared the City an official disaster area.  On Thursday morning, after touring Oshkosh, Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum declared Winnebago County a disaster area. 

While the line crews worked 16 hour shifts followed by 8 hours of rest, I was on around the clock.  Yes the work that the lineman were performing was much more physically exhausting than engineering, but I felt like we were working hand in hand on the front lines giving the same amount of effort.  When restoration wrapped up on Saturday, I had worked 96 hours, often going on 3 hours of sleep each night.  But other than a few isolated customer outages that required electrician work before power could be restored, we had brought the city back to life, breathing power back into the lines.

Within a single week, I got more leadership and storm restoration planning experience than most engineers get in a lifetime.  And I loved it.  The adrenaline of the environment; the sense of community seeing everyone pulling together for a common cause; the overwhelming gratitude that customers expressed when a line truck would roll up to their home after days without electricity. 

I had found my passion.  Outage management.

From that point forward, I was deeply involved with storm planning procedures, the computerized outage management system and taking an active role in going to other sites to help during storms.  Within a few years I was being asked to take on more responsibility on outage management at the corporate level, and eventually was named as Senior Outage Management Engineer.  In that role, I provided technical and strategic expertise in the area of Outage Management, set corporate policy and was the process owner for OMS.  I was responsible for coordination of training, change management, and created a steering committee for outage response.  Eventually WPS would replace the home-grown outage management system with a COTS (configurable off the shelf) OMS, and Intergraph InService was chosen as the platform.  After working for just over a year on the deployment, we cut over into production in April of 2006.  I managed to leverage the years of working in and around outage management into a career as an executive consultant for Intergraph, which is where I have been ever since.

So in a way, I have been living and breathing outage management for my entire professional career.  Driven by the passion for how automation and computer systems can aid restoration and ultimately reduce the time to restore power.  Looking back at the June 11th storm, I recall the role that the OMS played, but how most of our tools were manual, paper based.  The damage assessment that we conducted was using paper printed map books from GIS.  When the assessors would return at the end of the day, very little of the assessment results ever got into the hands of the dispatchers.  The crew management was using whiteboards and spreadsheets.  We did the best with the tools that we had at the time, but it was a very manual process. 

So for the last 15 years I have been thinking about that storm in Oshkosh, and the many other storms that I worked,  I have been wondering how automation could have taken days off of weeklong storms.  How we had no real time visibility from the field into the back office and often times were blinding sending crews out to perform restoration when significant construction or repair needed to be perform first.

In the spring of 2014, I decided that I was no longer going to just think about how damage assessment could be automated, I was going to do something about it.  Working for software company that provides solutions to electric utilities for outage management, it was a perfect fit to expand out our offerings to include a damage assessment solution.  I took my years of experience, countless hours of consulting with engineers and linemen from all over North American and my skills as an engineer to develop a set of requirements for an end to end solution.

I knew that there were some tools out there to perform simple data capture in the field, replacing the paper map book markup process, but there wasn’t much for solutions that automated all parts of the damage assessment process.  I wanted to design a solution that started in the back office with the work planning component, enabling storm supervisors to use web based technology to see the details of the OMS, including the outages and the crews, without having to be standing over the shoulder of a dispatcher.  I wanted them to be able to proactively plan for where they would send out bird dogs (damage assessors) to work ahead of the line crews.  The assessors would be able to leverage modern devices, such as tablets and smart phones to document the damage that they were seeing, including pictures and notes.  This information would be sent back in real time, so that the storm supervisors and dispatchers would have the information they needed to make intelligent decisions about the best way to respond.  Then the supervisors could analyze the progress that the assessors were making, track materials that were being used and project more accurate restoration times. 

And like that, the inception of an end to end damage assessment solution was born. 

Having an idea is the easy part; turning that concept into fruition is something else.  But with a properly researched and well thought out business case, I had the support and funding that we needed to have this idea turn into reality.

Among the many requirements that went into the product, was the fact that I wanted this solution to be agnostic to any existing Intergraph technology; meaning I did not want to limit this to only customers who owned Intergraph OMS, GIS or both.  The solution needed to use industry standard integration methodology such that it could pull data via OGC standard web services, enabling the use of GIS data from any vendor.  It also needed to be able to send results directly to any outage management system, something that other vendors seemed to have struggled with.  While it can be easy to continue to build solutions for your existing customer base, I knew that the future success of damage assessment lie well beyond Intergraph, but to any utility or communications company in the world who deals with small to large scale storms. 

Now 18 months after we started, and on the ten-year anniversary of when the outage management system that I helped to implement went live at WPS, Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure is releasing our own damage assessment solution.  To say that it has been a long road to get here would be very accurate, but I am extremely proud of the team that was able to make this happen.  Our development staff worked tirelessly, under the guidance of our project management, to build a world class solution.  I speak in first person about my history with storm management and damage assessment, but we would not be able to release this solution if not for the hard work from the entire team.

This is not the end of the story.  This is just the beginning.  I am excited to see how the industry embraces our approach for damage assessment.  This solution may not revolutionize the world, but if it can help to reduce the time to restore power, then it would be a great success.  Only time will tell how my vision for damage assessment will fare, but I believe that the future looks very bright.  I think that the Ralph Bauman’s of the world will sleep better at night knowing that technology is available to make their jobs repairing the grid a little safer.

Eric Charette's picture
Thank Eric for the Post!
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tilak mishra's picture
tilak mishra on Apr 21, 2016

I am a new bee in Utility industry, now i understand how difficult it is on the field to restore things than restoring Servers. Hats off !!Thank you for this post and please keep writing ..

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