GE Digital Energy field tests mobile damage app

By Karen Haywood Queen/Published Sept. 08, 2015/Smart Grid Today

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Makes predictions based on partial outage data

Helps manage, maximize benefit from foreign crews

GE Digital Energy’s new mobile damage-assessment app could shave one to two days from a two-week, major storm-related outage – saving utilities millions of dollars, John Chisum, utility product line leader for GE Digital Energy, told us recently in an exclusive interview.

The app was released in February, according to the GE website, and this interview was our first inquiry into what it offers utilities that use it.

“Using this application, a utility can start inspecting things in the field a day earlier after a major storm or other event than they could using traditional logistic systems,” Chisum said. “Putting people in the field a day earlier can cut days off recovery time and save multi-millions of dollars.”

For a major hurricane, a full restore might take 14 days without using the app, he added. “If we can restore them in 12 days, we can save the utility millions in revenue stream and the cost of foreign crews.”

“Workers can be out in the field as soon as it is safe,” Chisum said. “This could be within hours of the storm passing, based on safety conditions. A utility could have repair crews staged in a safe location with the app downloaded so as soon as conditions are safe, they could be sent into the field immediately,” he added.

This app offers a simple user interface, a GPS feature and works on any popular mobile device – not just those owned by the utility, Chisum said. During major storm recoveries, mutual-assistance crew members from other utilities can download the app onto their own devices, he added.

As crews check for damage and enter new information, the GPS can identify their location.

Although the app will work with legacy meters, smart meters enhance the performance of the app by offering more real-time data, thus restoring power faster, Chisum said.

The cost to the utility is expected to cost about $1 million for a utility with a million smart meters, Chisum said, though the firm believes he savings from a single major outage could offset the investment. The firm considered a shared-risk model of pricing, where the utility would pay based on how much money the app saved after a storm.

“If you were able to pull one to three days off that event, what would that be worth to you?” he said. “They might save tens of millions of dollars.

“That risk-sharing model could be much more profitable to GE,” but utilities might not have been happy with the bill, Brian Friehauf, GE Digital Energy asset management product line leader, told us. “That’s the tricky part. That’s why we went with a more traditional pricing model.”

Two utilities are field-testing the app to let GE further refine it, Friehauf said. Five utilities expressed interest, but the technology firm limited the rollout and the two do not want to be named at this stage, he added.

GE expects to offer the app more widely by the end of this year, he added.

Many utilities still use manual, paper-based processes, requiring data-entry at the home office to evaluate damage after an outage, Chisum noted.

“Probably 75% of utilities are still gathering data manually to some extent, even if they have a mobile solution for their own staff, because they don’t have devices to give to outside contractors,” he added. “If you’re doing it on paper in the field, a lot of the information has to be re-entered in the office.

“Anybody coming into the area to assist can use the device they brought with them,” he added.

With other apps, when the mutual-assistance people show up, the utility need needs to give them a laptop and credentials and teach them how to use the app. That this is not always a smooth process as some foreign crews are resistant to using another utility’s system.

GE has an older mobile app but use of it has been limited to a utility’s own employees, Friehauf said.

“Crews could download information onto their specific devices, but we couldn’t leverage the devices to mutual-assistance crews.

“It was a tool useful to utilities but it stayed within the utility’s boundaries. This [new app] allows us to perform a much better damage triage assessment.”

Damage prediction included

Information available on that older app is more limited, Friehauf said.

“If you’re doing damage assessment on a company’s existing mobile solution, the information doesn’t come back in a form that lets a utility say, ‘Based on the data we have, there are 50,000 poles we need to replace,'” because older systems typically do not have the ability to predict totals based on a partial collection of data.

Smart meters can help give utilities a more detailed damage assessment, and as a utility installs more smart meters, the overall system will become more adept at providing data, Friehauf said.

During an outage, utilities get good information already from smart meters but it is incomplete, Chisum noted.

Acting on AMI info

“If I have a great smart metering infrastructure out there, I would get the signaling or lack of signaling to know who is out of power. That helps with the outage-restoration process, but there are still some details missing for restoration of the network.

“The automated system can tell me that everyone on the street is out of power, but it can’t tell me about the infrastructure requirements. It can’t tell me if five or three poles are down.”

In an initial damage assessment with the new app, a storm team can walk 10% of the affected area and the app will let them accurately predict total damage, Chisum said. The utility can then order the right number of foreign crews and provide statements to the media about how long it will take to restore power, he added.

It is still the case that “in some cases, mutual-assistance crews are brought in and the utility doesn’t know yet where to put them to work,” he said, “or first responders show up and may not have all the skills and materials to make the repairs.”

Possible scenarios include a bridge needed for access being so small only one type of truck can cross it. “Very often, a large bucket truck that can’t cross that bridge will get sent and then another truck has to be sent. With the app, they will have this information.”

Efficiency for minor outages

Utilities can benefit from using the app in a minor outage not related to a storm, Chisum said. It helps them determine the experience a crew would need to correct it and, again, lets the main office know of any size restrictions on access roads and bridges.

One of the utilities field testing the app had calm-weather days in mind when requesting the app, he added. The utility wanted its workers to get accustomed to using it before a big emergency, he added.

Most of the requested refinements from the early adopters were minor, such as changes to the graphics interface and better usability, Chisum said. The app works now on mobile devices using Apple and Windows operating systems, he added, and Friehauf said that by fall, an Android version will be added.

Other officials can help

A utility could provide the app to police and firefighters to let them share information with the utility, Chisum said. If such government employees saw a utility pole down or other issue, they could let the utility know via the app.

Such information sharing would be one-way only, he added, noting the police and firefighters would not have access to the big-picture data.