My. Power. Is. Out. Again!!!
The US power grid is an extremely reliable network of power distribution equipment, wires, and cables inclusive of generation, storage and time varying loads. Despite the complexity of the distribution grid, the power networks remain as reliable as ever. Today, however, consumers flock to social media to complain when their power goes out. Often, this can result in a piling on phenomenon where everyone in the affected area chimes in about their power being out while rarely anyone actually calls in to their respective power company to report the outage. This new response, enabled by the pervasiveness of mobile technologies and cellular data should provide benefit to our industry however often it just ends up being noise like much of the Internet content. These behaviors can delay responses and ultimately drain your smart phone battery and limit you from more useful actions during the outage.
The one benefit of these internet rants is the industry may be able to learn from these behaviors. We are learning that consumers are more likely to post on social media than to call in and report outages in the call center. Social media is a growing platform for capturing information as consumers want their voices heard rather than logging an outage into a real time map or calling into a live call center. Arguably, real time outage maps provide more information to the consumer, however there is a disconnect with the anonymity of these systems while social media provides a more personal connection. We also can learn that many consumers lack knowledge of how power networks operate based purely on historical posts.
It is very common to hear phrases like, “I think a transformer blew” or “It’s not even raining here, how can the power go out” or “every time it rains the power goes out”.
The power distribution system is designed to isolate itself. System protection is designed to minimize customer outages and equipment failure. Most of these systems are radial, meaning the power flows in one direction from the source to the load. When a fault occurs on the system, the protecting device upstream of the fault will operate. This could be a fuse, a recloser, a breaker and this isolates the outage until the fault can be cleared and the equipment repaired. A recloser can temporarily isolate the system based on utility configurations, and automatically attempt to re-energize the network, which is very useful in cases of wind blowing a tree branch on to a line resulting in a temporary fault that may clear without any intervention.
While it can happen, most outages are not from transformer failures like many consumers speculate. There are two types of transformers on a system. Distribution transformers located near the load and the substation power transformers located near the source. Both transformers serve the same purpose which is to lower voltage. The substation power transformers reduce the transmission voltage down to distribution levels. These power transformers in the substation power 1000’s of homes. A failure on a substation power transformer can cause extended outages for all customers on the circuits served by the transformer which could be up to 5,000 customers. Distribution transformers are located near the load and lowers the primary line voltage to a voltage that can be connected to a home or business to operate lighting or motors or other equipment that requires electricity. A typical distribution transformer will serve 1-6 customers and while the impact is much less when a distribution transformer fails, it can be an extended outage as the repair times may take several hours once the outage is identified. Since the outage could be limited to only those customers served by the distribution transformer, it is very important to contact your local utility to make them aware that you are out of power. Outage identification is the first part of getting your power back on. The more customers call in, the better the outage detection and identification which can reduce outage times by getting crews to the exact location of the outage sooner.
While many utility customers are attached to smart meters that relay a heart beat back to the utility when the power is on, many do not and may not know if your power is out unless you call and report an outage. Consumers can also help the utility determine the cause by providing information about your outage such as the time of the outage, location, and if neighboring connections are also out of power.
As industry professionals, we need to evangelize to our communities the importance of using social media in a productive way. I’ve noted comments such as “they need to replace our generator or unit etc around here” and “it’s a temporary fix on the transformer” that at best just rev up customers that are already flamming over being out of power. Smart phones now empower everyone to communicate and interact with their utility in a new way. Some utility Twitter accounts are monitored 24×7 where you can communicate safety hazards or outages or vegetation management issues. Obviously you should only text or take pictures when it is safe for you and others to do so. You can be proactive and address reliability concerns with your utility, but be prepared to validate the details of your experiences which include the outage date and durations. Reliability engineers can look into these issues which may help them prioritize projects that could ultimately benefit you as the consumer. If consumers feel their reliability is below expectations due to either extended outages or frequency of outages, an option is to contact the distribution reliability engineer and discuss the history. It is recommended to do this during good weather days when outages are less frequent and staff are not working active outages.
At DNV GL, we provide reliability analysis software for utilities to model and run computerized scenarios to improve reliability before funding projects. This helps consumers and utilities save money by keeping energy delivery rates as low as possible by determining the most effective ways to improve reliability.