For Florida, 2004 will go down in history as the year of the hurricanes. An unprecedented number of hurricanes took direct aim at Florida and ravaged the peninsula in a way that has never occurred since records on such events have been maintained.

SECO Energy (Sumterville, Florida, U.S.) was hit by three of the 2004 hurricanes. Charley, Frances and then Jeanne took aim at the electric distribution cooperative's 2000-sq mile (5200-sq km) service territory, which consists of 160,000 homes and businesses in a booming seven-county region in Central Florida. The result was severe damage to the entire distribution system and the loss of power to a total of 200,000 SECO customers for the three storms.

One of SECO's most challenging efforts was to maintain communications with members, news agencies and emergency operations centers (EOCs) during severe outage situations. To improve communications with members and customers during future storm events, SECO investigated another means for members and customers to gauge the severity of the outages on the SECO system.

This additional alternative allows members the ability to report or check their status during outages. It also provides outside agencies with the ability to determine the areas where outages are occurring, provided that an Internet connection is available.

Challenges

Many issues must be addressed when a utility decides to publish outage data for external consumption. First, there are technical challenges in providing timely data in a manner that scales well to the Internet, while minimizing the impact on production of the outage management system (OMS). Then there are organizational challenges in deciding what data to reveal, how to present that data and what impact publishing it will have on the utility's public image. Perhaps the greatest challenge is gaining the executive buy-in and political co-operation within the organization.

Architecture

SECO learned that in order to provide outage data to its members on the Internet, an additional application layer would be required to introduce it into the system architecture. This application layer would serve to cache outage data and maps, thus providing members with near-real-time data, while not impacting the OMS production system. The layer also would provide security and prevent users from directly accessing the OMS system from the Internet.

Attribute data, such as general outage statistics and individual members' status, is stored in a data warehouse, which is refreshed at a selected time interval. Simultaneously, a series of maps is generated in a PNG image format depicting outage status covering predefined view scales of SECO's management areas. This data is uploaded to a secure Internet demilitarized zone, allowing the public to view the data.

The publicly accessible application that SECO came up with was Storm Center. The application was developed by General Electric (GE; Fairfield, Connecticut, U.S.) in co-operation with SECO, and the website was generated using a combination of standard Internet technologies including HTML, Javascript, CSS, XML/XSL, JSP and Struts.

Secure Access

Security is of paramount concern for Storm Center because of its public accessibility. Juxtaposed against this is the requirement to make the website easy to use, as some SECO members may not be Internet savvy. For access to general data, such as the outage maps, outage summary by county and historical outage trends, no login is required. For accessing individual account status and logging trouble calls, users simply need to provide an account number, phone number, or name and address. This logon scheme is becoming a common pattern, as many utilities are more frequently using it to provide restricted access to their sites.

There is also an administrative threshold setting added to the application that would disable specific functionality and be used in the event multiple outages were programmatically created and fed into the system. This sort of malicious behavior could cause the entire Storm Center application to crash or lockup. In the event of this occurrence, an automated notification would be sent to the system administrator.

Outage Publishing

Publishing near-real-time outages graphically for public consumption becomes a major decision and concern for a company. Therefore, SECO considered the many issues prior to publishing such data.

There were a variety of ideas on how the total number of outages should be displayed. Outages can be displayed using thematically color-coded polygons, outage head/fault locations, the status of the primary network, transformers or individual demand points.

The primary goal was to display outages that the general public would understand. In doing so, a concern was raised about whether the maps would reveal enough detail to determine outage status at the neighborhood level, while not revealing the individual status of each member. SECO chose to model outages by showing which transformers were deenergized in SECO's territory.

A display known as a “measles” map is used to visually represent the graphical transformer outage locations. A variety of methods can be used to represent outage locations and severity of the outages. SECO evaluated the following methods:

  • Transformer outages

    This method highlights transformer outage locations that the OMS has confirmed as out of power. This provides a spatial representation of the total number out, the locations and the severity level.

  • Range of outages

    This method uses a graphic symbol that grows in size as more customers are affected. A legend is also common, which provides users with a known range of customers represented as out of power. The placement of these symbols can vary and are sometimes placed at the device locations on the circuits where the outage has occurred. They also can be placed at the midpoint of the circuit.

Reporting Interval

In addition to publishing critical outage information to the public, there is an administration application that allows staff to control what data is shown. Early on in the Storm Center project, SECO realized that under some circumstances it would want to change how often the data is refreshed in the interface. Under normal operating conditions, data is regenerated every 15 minutes. Afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence in Florida, and being able to show near-real-time storm-affected outages as they are occurring and the restoration efforts achieved provides the most realistic picture of current conditions.

However, during major events, things can be a lot more chaotic and the status in the OMS may not necessarily reflect the actual network state. To provide enough flexibility based on weather conditions, SECO, with the support of GE, chose to develop an administrative option that would provide the ability to change the update increments based on weather conditions. During more extreme conditions, longer periods of time can be entered. In addition, an option was developed to totally disable the displayable map in the event that data issues were to arise.

The quality of the network data and certain maintenance processes can affect the data displayed in Storm Center. Providing an additional safeguard so that inaccurate data is not published helps to ensure that false outage situations do not occur. An administrative option was developed to provide SECO with control over these situations and to ensure that the published information could be controlled, if necessary.

Solutions

In the above illustrations, the power outages based on transformer locations are indicated in red. This provides a visual overview of the locations and extent of outages occurring across the service area. The SECO Storm Center maps provide three levels of map detail.

Previous storm experience has taught SECO it can be very difficult to contact the cooperative when a large volume of phone calls is being received. Therefore, the ability to report an outage through the Internet provides an alternative method for members to contact SECO during storm situations.

Storm Center also provides another method for members to check the status of their power through Internet access from any location. This gives members the ability to determine if their power has been restored.

During severe outage situations, many news and county government agencies require up-to-date outage information to convey to the public. This Internet-enabled tool provides a means for them to access the utility outage data. The data informs the public of the severity and number of outages caused by the storm. It also provides county EOCs with a better understanding of where the outages have occurred, giving them access to information they can use to respond and provide specific resources (water and ice) where they are needed.

When the lights go out, the one question is, “I wonder how long this will last?” The ability to provide restoration times is a true customer benefit. A utility must develop a table of data that depicts the amount of time it takes to restore different outage situations. This is based on historic work practices so that the amount of time involved in performing the restoration is accurately defined.

Storm Center is able to provide two different types of estimated time of restoration (ETR), depending on the severity of the outages. First, an individual ETR is provided during normal afternoon thunderstorm situations. Second, for more widespread situations, a county ETR is provided on the system administrative page and displayed as a banner when users visit the Storm Center site. It provides news agencies and county EOC personnel with an estimated time frame for all outages to be restored and is based on the restoration efforts of the field crews.

When severe storms damage a utility's infrastructure, members can go without power for days. This configurable snapshot provides news agencies with the total number of members out of power on each day and provides a glimpse of how the restoration effort is proceeding.

Value and Public Response

A tool was implemented to monitor the Storm Center website usage. There are several commercial and open-source tools that allow one to view usage rates and patterns. SECO chose an open-source application recommended by GE called AWSTATs. This application allows SECO to see, over time, how many people are using the website, how long they view each page, the top users of the site, how users navigate between pages on the site and the duration of time spent visiting the site. This tool has only been used for a few months, but the results are providing SECO with data that will assist in understanding the needs of members and the value of this application.

During 2004, SECO discovered that its membership had found ways to communicate by e-mail despite power outages due to the hurricanes. And, it was not sporadic communication. Literally, thousands of members made inquiries about the storm-restoration status by e-mail. Some used computers at work, others used personal computers with battery backups or laptops with internal batteries, and a number of members used computers in public facilities that had power. Still others, who had evacuated, checked on the status from computers outside the storm-impacted region. Consequently, the online Storm Center became a communications priority for SECO in order to fulfill its purpose of providing exceptional service to its customers, co-workers and communities.

Acknowledgement

The author would like to acknowledge GE Senior Consultant Peter Manskopf, who served as the technical lead in the development of this application and its architecture.


Barry Owens is manager of GIS and Drafting Services for SECO Energy. He has been with the utility since November 1997 and is responsible for leading the GIS team in accomplishing business-related functions that involve GIS-related information and integration. Owens is a member of GITA and Epsilon Pi Tau, and has more than 19 years of GIS experience in the electric utility industry. He has a bachelor's and a master's degree in industrial technology from the University of North Dakota.
barry.owens@secoenergy.com