Oncor solves outages without customers

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After shelling out millions of dollars on smart meter deployments, utilities begin the long journey of recouping their investment and delivering value to customers and the industry. It's a frequently challenging process that requires the solid planning and vision of many stakeholders. But when executed properly, the economic and environmental benefits of smart meters can be immense.

Oncor's metering network is improving communication between homes and T&D systems.

Oncor is among the many U.S. utilities reaping these benefits. The majority of utilities are trending toward better service, but operating in a deregulated market with nearly 100 retail electric providers really put the pressure on Oncor to provide a competitive product.

But even the utility was surprised at how effective smart meter systems could be when paired with the right people and infrastructure. The utility last month announced that 23 percent of confirmed outages since March 2012 were restored before the customers realized anything was wrong.

"I had no earthly idea we would see this level of benefit," said Mark Carpenter, Oncor's vice president of T&D operations and measurement services, during a presentation at DistribuTECH. 

Trial and error

The path toward achieving a more "self-healing" grid was not without its trials. With an advanced metering system (AMS) in place, Oncor quickly realized there was more they could get out of smart meters beyond just electricity readings. But with 3.2 million smart meters in its service territory, extracting this value was no easy proposition. The biggest thing was to secure the right internal resources and work with trusted vendors.

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By the end of 2012, the system had recorded 27,000 meter events. Of that total, 85 percent were confirmed outages and 23 percent were fixed without involving customers.
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"If you don't have the right partners, you're not going to succeed," Carpenter said.

One of the largest challenges was identifying and weeding out false positive alerts of outages. Doing so would eliminate unnecessary truck rolls to customer homes. This would take care of a big problem, especially with the possibility of having hundreds of thousands of outage signals during a major storm.

"We had to recognize the inherent limitations of the communication system we put in and how it was going to respond," Carpenter said.

To combat this problem, Oncor outfitted each meter with a capacitor and programmed the meters to wait 40 seconds before sending outage signals to dispatchers.

A proactive solution

Carpenter walked through three main goals of the AMS deployment. The first and more critical aspect was to identify outages as quickly and accurately as possible. Second was receiving notification of outage restoration. Finally, the utility wanted the ability to know if meters were actually broken, or if problems could be fixed by consumers. Oncor estimated that 20 percent of meter events were able to be resolved by phone calls to customers.

Oncor saw immediate results following AMS implementation. By the end of 2012, the system had recorded 27,000 meter events. Of that total, 85 percent were confirmed outages and 23 percent were fixed without involving customers. The remaining 15 percent of meter signals were caused by a variety of situations including voltage issues, meter health problems, meter removals or maintenance.

Carpenter said the ability to fix meter problems really grabbed the attention of system operators. Catching outages on a rolling basis means Oncor can avoid a backup queue and streamline its operations.

Going forward, Oncor is working to improve scalability issues, as well as beefing up workforce training and education. They are also in the preliminary states of analytics integration, but Carpenter said it is something the utility is aggressively pursuing.