- Apr 20, 2021 9:03 pm GMT
This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-04 - Innovation in the Power Industry, click here for more
The Next Big Thing isn’t always a whiz-bang, all-new, mind-blowingly novel idea. Sometimes it’s actually pretty basic—like taking something consumers have been using for years and making it work in an area where, for various reasons, it just hasn’t been an available option.
I’m talking about interoperable wireless broadband communications transforming utilities’ critical mutual aid operations, increasing resilience by improving the speed, safety, and efficiency of disaster recovery. Storm season is coming fast, and we will soon see convoys of repair crews descending on storm-ravaged neighborhoods, racing against the clock to restore power as freezers thaw, home health equipment stops working, customers swelter, regulators launch inquiries, and businesses grind to a halt. For businesses, power outages can cost in a range of ways, from lost production and sales to damaged inventory and customer loyalty. Looking at major industries at particular risk of losses from power outages, Bloom Energy in 2019 sited surveys showing that each hour power restoration is delayed can cost a large retailer over $200,000, a data center over $500,000, and a large manufacturer $5 million. And for utilities, major recovery efforts are phenomenally expensive, growing more so with every hour as personnel work at overtime rates, around the clock; where recovery insurance is in place, it frequently does not cover the entire bill.
Today—as for the past decade or more—a crew arriving to provide mutual aid receives its assignments by voice phone call, in-person presentation, or paper instruction. The host utility might provide visiting crews paper printouts of feeder circuits to investigate—or maybe just give the visiting crew a location from which to start driving the circuit, searching for the problem. When they spot and assess the problem, the crew might have to request delivery of materials to accomplish the repair (a phone call or paper process). And when they complete the repair, they may learn that this is a “nested” outage requiring location, assessment, and repair of another problem before power can be restored. The host utility’s disaster response workflow, supporting systems, and communications capabilities can all conspire to slow—and increase the cost of—the recovery effort.
Some utilities provide information to repair crews via the internet, which the crews access over the commercial wireless broadband services they commonly use. Unfortunately, those consumer-grade services often suffer from outages caused by the same storms that took out the power in the areas the crew is trying to restore. Even when commercial cellular service survives the storm, coverage gaps can leave crews without communications, particularly in rural areas. And utilities are understandably hesitant to allow full access to critical systems over the public internet.
Frequently, visiting crews will pair up with local crews to benefit not only from their familiarity of the system but also from their communications capabilities. And those capabilities are going to be increasing markedly in the accelerating transition from narrowband radio and commercial internet access to utility-grade private networks. Commercial networks are great for consumers, but utilities require more reliability, control, and security for their critical communications, so they are increasingly building their own hardened, private wireless broadband networks. In addition to enabling utility grid modernization initiatives, private wireless broadband networks will super-charge service recovery efforts after a storm or other incident—even when the crews are coming from far outside the coverage area of the utility’s private network.
As more utilities deploy private wireless broadband networks, their own repair crews will become far more efficient, because they have both the connectivity (activated device) and authorization (credentials/permissions) required for direct, secure mobile access to the utility’s internal applications, such as a supply chain management system and a digital overhead map of the lines, fuses, substations, transformers, and poles that make up the distribution system. In practice, this means the host utility’s own crews can find and diagnose the problems and proceed more quickly with the repair, saving tremendous time over the more arduous process required of visiting crews.
Just that secure mobile access to the utility’s basic systems for local crews would be enough to qualify as the Next Big Thing. But that’s just the beginning. With private wireless broadband coverage in place, utilities can start to deploy the plethora of sensors and smart devices they will use to obtain detailed, real-time situational awareness of what is really happening on the grid. The data the network collects from these sensors will further enhance repair crews’ ability to find problems and safely restore power—and the transmission and distribution operations teams’ ability to coordinate and execute an efficient recovery. Unfortunately, that “mobile desktop” capability familiar to every business traveler (back when business travel was a thing, pre-pandemic) would be available only to the utility’s own crews, because they would be able to access the utility’s private wireless broadband network. Or would it?
We no longer even notice when our smartphones “roam” onto a network other than the one that bills us. The really Next Big Thing here is the application of that “roaming” idea to the visiting repair crews providing mutual aid. What if they were traveling with devices that were capable of connecting to the host’s private wireless network? What if those devices were the same devices they used to connect to their own networks back home? All they would need to operate with the same efficiency as the local crews would be the required permissions to (1) connect their devices to the host network and (2) access the host’s applications. With this ability to roam—paired with appropriately stringent authorization and security measures—mutual aid providers will finally enjoy a utility-grade “mobile desktop” experience and the bevy of efficiencies that come along with it.
The industry-wide adoption of private wireless broadband networks and the secured, authorized ability of visiting mutual aid crews to “roam” onto host networks will drive other innovations that further enhance recovery efficiencies. A simple one to foresee is the standardization across the industry of certain applications. If all utilities use the same overhead mapping application, for example, visiting crews will arrive already trained to use that application when providing mutual aid to a host utility.
All of this is to say: I believe the Next Big Thing will be the industry-wide adoption of private wireless broadband platforms by utilities and it will drive innovations that change the power industry by transforming mutual aid and speeding power recovery.
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