Ahead of the Storm: How Utilities Providers Can Minimize Downtime During Storms

On January 22, 2016, the first snowflake fell in what is considered one of the most devastating East Coast blizzards in recent years. Up to 40 inches of snow was recorded in Glengary, West Virginia. States of emergency were declared in Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia. More than 74,000 people lost power.1 Fortunately none of this came as a surprise to local utilities, who knew well in advance the possible path and implications of the immense storm. Advance notice of potential storm outages has been enhanced by cutting-edge weather modeling systems, which can help identify territory impacts and predict the number of outage locations and customers affected.2

As early as one week before the blizzard struck, trucks were deployed with storm supplies, kits and extra inventory to keep affected utilities well stocked through the snowy weekend. The timing of this type of deployment is critical. Upfront planning is more important than ever because today’s technology makes it easier to predict when, where and how storms will hit. The trick is to be sure supplies are ready to go just as quickly. You can’t move supplies that aren’t ready to be moved. There are three ways utilities are staying ahead of storms in today’s high-tech, highly predictive environment: virtual warehousing, state-of-the-art logistics and tracking, and ongoing maintenance and services.

Virtual warehousing

It’s important to identify which storm-critical items you may need, such as generators, transformers and cutouts. But what happens when demand for certain items exceeds supply? With the virtual warehouse, utilities are able to ‘look inside’ the real-time inventory of their nearest warehouse. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, they can just as easily look into the inventories of other warehouses through the region. With advanced planning, these items can get to where they need to be well ahead of time. We bring manufacturers in on storm preparation plans early, oftentimes several months before storm season, so that they can help fill in potential supply gaps. Manufacturers and suppliers should go into storm prep mode just as utilities do. They should be available around the clock to fulfill inventory needs.

State-of-the-art logistics and tracking

The irony of storm prep is that there is such a thing as mobilizing too quickly. It may be easy to assume that once a storm is predicted to hit a certain area, supplies should be moved there as quickly as possible. But storms—particularly hurricanes and tropical storms—change course. All of a sudden, you may find that you stocked the wrong location with little or no time to correct the mistake. The timing needs to be just right. Once it’s relatively safe to deploy supplies, state-of-the-art logistics and tracking systems offer a valuable window into exactly when supplies will be arriving. We now have real-time GPS tracking of supply trucks. Utilities can see whether a truck is five miles away or just down the block. In storm situations, this is critical information. Crews that are working in adverse conditions need to know exactly when that next truck will arrive. Minutes matter.

Ongoing maintenance and services

Maintenance measures as simple as keeping tree branches trimmed around power lines and as extensive as hardening system networks and replacing aging infrastructure are as important as ever and should be handled on an ongoing basis. Other precautionary measures, like planning storm kits and preparing safety checklists, are also important to tackle when the weather is fine. Everything that can be done on an ongoing basis or in advance should be. Leave last-minute preparations for those more precise details like exactly how much materials are needed in precisely which locations.

Staying one step ahead of storms is getting easier as technology continues to improve. Last month, NASA and NOAA launched GOES-R, the most scientifically capable weather satellite to ever soar into orbit. GOES-R can take pictures as often as every 30 seconds – much faster than the several-minute intervals of current satellites – allowing it to track developing changes in blizzards, thunderstorms, hurricanes and other severe storms. This new technology can help utilities providers and emergency responders better prepare for where to deploy resources as a storm advances.3

Additionally, the U.S. is adding a new storm-predicting supercomputer to its toolbox in 2017. The supercomputer, Cheyenne, is capable of 5.3 quadrillion calculations per second, and has a whopping 313 terabytes of storage memory. All of that power will be directed toward accurately predicting severe weather and the future of climate on Earth.4