Utility Management Series: Planning for the Post-Pandemic Future

This series tackles the prevailing dilemmas happening in utility boardrooms across the United States, now covering the question: How to manage through times of uncertainty?

One year ago, an abrupt shift to at-home work combined with social distancing protocols left many utilities grappling with new demands for remote management and little direction on where to start. On one hand, customers and employees alike needed more remote access. On the other hand, financial resources are scarce – meaning technology investments had to be sound and scalable to meet evolving needs. These dynamics beg the question, “What should I prioritize now?” 

Start by assessing what your customer needs and daily operations are now and what they will look like in the next year, five years and even 10-20 years down the road. For example, more at-home workers put extra daily demands on the grid that make peak usage more difficult to predict and load management more essential. For water utilities, addressing infrastructure challenges and delivering clean, affordable water to homes and hospitals is more critical than ever for keeping communities healthy.  

You may not be able to tackle every challenge immediately. However, you can prioritize investments in remote management capabilities that address your most pressing needs now and are scalable to support future capabilities. Start now to build a strategic framework that identifies and prioritizes problems for both the short and long-term.

How Alliant Energy used remote management to respond to a storm

Our customer, Alliant Energy, is a powerful example of planning ahead but also capitalizing on scalable technology. No one could have anticipated the destruction that would come last summer when a powerful storm knocked out power for 260,000 of Alliant Energy’s Iowa customers and caused $11 billion in damage to homes and businesses throughout Iowa and neighboring states.

“It was all-hands-on-deck to get power restored as quickly as possible,” said Randy Bauer, Alliant Energy’s Director of Operational Resources. “Thankfully, the technology investments we made previously helped provide a roadmap for where we needed to go and what we needed to do.”

Alliant Energy had recently rolled out a Sensus advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system for customers in Iowa. The solution runs on the point-to-multipoint Sensus FlexNet® communication network, a reliable, two-way system that enables real-time data monitoring between the utility and its meters.

The derecho, a widespread, long-lived windstorm, took down trees, ripped apart corn silos and peeled the roof off an apartment complex. As the intense winds began to die down, an Alliant Energy team used data from their smart network to assess outages and restore power. 

“Data from our system let us know who was with or without power,” said Bauer. “We could also identify transformers that had been damaged, so we knew where to dispatch technicians to make immediate repairs.” Alliant Energy restored power for the majority of customers in just a few days.

How Alliant Energy used smart technology to plan ahead

Alliant Energy did not rest between storms. They put their technology to work addressing future issues—like improved mapping accuracy using FlexNet.

“Maps can get messy when you’re focused on getting the lights back on quickly for so many customers,” said Bauer. “Sometimes you put meters on different phases for good reason, but there isn’t time to document every move.”

The investor-owned utility conducted a phase detection pilot program across approximately 600 meters in the town of DeWitt, Iowa. The system proved capable of detecting the correct phase with 100 percent accuracy.

“It turned out we had 240 mismatched meters,” said Bauer. “Resolving these types of inaccuracies moving forward will help us serve our customers better.”

How to get started

Alliant Energy’s story is just one example of what remote management can do for service reliability. For your utility, start with the key issues—a wish list of specific customer challenges or operational problems that need to be solved. Let this be your North Star as you consider an investment in remote management technology.

Now, take inventory and build on what exists. If you are currently leveraging automated meter reading to obtain meter data, a natural migration is to AMI and connecting endpoints via a two-way communication network to automate and speed the collection of this data. Utilities that have already deployed AMI can examine how they can extend their current capabilities, or which new capabilities can be added to meet new challenges. For example, can the utility deploy a new service in addition to their current AMI through a software update, or is new hardware required?

No matter where you start, an investment in remote management today will support your employees, customers and organization tomorrow.