Temperatures are rising, the population is growing, physical service areas are expanding and regulations are tightening. Yet, these aren’t the things utilities are most worried about right now. The impacts of these economic, environmental and policy changes are somewhat predictable. They are accounted for in both short-term and long-term planning activities.
Rather, it’s the unpredictable nature of Mother Nature and unforeseeable human behavior that make it hard for utilities to anticipate demand, scale infrastructure and allocate resources in order to improve service reliability, customer satisfaction, compliance and cost control. Major weather events, fires, conflicts, security breaches and public health crises can all have both acute and chronic impacts on utility operations – and none of them can be fully anticipated or mitigated.
Just look at COVID-19. Even utilities with highly-accurate demand forecasting models would not have had the foresight to know that we were on the verge of a global pandemic or exactly how the pandemic would impact local service demand or network reliability over time. Even to this day, we can’t know for sure if residential demand will continue to increase, eventually stabilise or even decline. No one knows if or when people are going to return to pre-pandemic work, school and social activity levels.
If you think about it, utility demand planning is a lot like road planning. You can expand a two-lane road to four lanes based on predictive traffic modeling for five or 10 years from now, but you have no way of knowing if a single event or combination of factors will cause a sudden spike or decline in the local population and, therefore, cause a sudden change in road utilisation or resource requirements. Similarly, we have no way of knowing if our current utility infrastructure can sufficiently support demand during heat waves or withstand hurricane-force winds, until it either does or doesn’t.
While every effort is made to improve service reliability and prevent outages on a daily basis, there are going to be incidents that simply can’t be mitigated. As such, utility engineers must be able to move fast to resolve issues and restore service. That is only possible if they can maintain a real-time view of every asset connected to the network and know, even before they arrive on site, the asset’s model specifications, service history and other details that could influence diagnostic and resolution actions. That’s where rugged tablets come in.
Like many utilities, Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) has a duty to deliver reliable electrical service to millions of people and businesses each day. Even a single, seemingly small outage can be detrimental to a lot of people, so SSEN is doing everything in its power to both fortify its networks and increase its diagnostic and repair speed and proficiency. It wants to ensure that its workers have the tools and actionable intelligence they need to act fast and minimise service downtime when disruptive events occur.
At the same time, it wants to ensure workers are proactively monitoring asset performance and taking swift, measured actions to address issues that would make equipment more vulnerable to environmental, security and physical threats. Outage prevention is the best way to simultaneously appease customers and regulators and avoid expensive recovery efforts.
But the only way SSEN can effectively manage the 130,000 km of overhead lines and underground cables, 106,000 substations and over 100 subsea cables spread across the north of Scotland and central southern England is if its 4,000+ team members can:
- See the status of every asset at all times;
- Analyse variations in asset performance alongside fluctuating service demands; and
- Act fast, in a coordinated manner, to install, inspect, diagnose, maintain, repair and replace assets as needed based on current and anticipated operating conditions.
So, the utility developed a digital strategy to help accelerate its transition to paperless workflows. Core to that strategy was the use of enterprise-grade rugged tablets by SSEN’s field technicians, mobile engineers and field service representatives.