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Pamela’s Blog:
The Energy Utility - re-imagined, re-invented

Thinking Differently About Outages

July 10, 2012

By now, most if not all of the homes and businesses left without power by the end-of-June storms have electricity service again.  As is common after events such as these, various communities are agitating for their utility to underground the distribution lines to lessen such outages and the Edison Electric Institute – predictably – is asserting that this would cost millions of dollars for very little benefit.  The most recent hot topic – the Smart Grid – has also entered this debate, with proponents claiming that significant Smart Grid investment would lessen the length and severity of such outages and others expressing skepticism.  What if we skip these debates and have a different conversation about outages?

First, let’s talk about what most households and businesses know about the frequency and length of outages.  This particular conversation won’t take long because the answer is short: they don’t know very much.    We may remember that we have been without power in the location we currently use for living or working but we are highly unlikely to remember exactly when, for how long, and how many times this has occurred.  Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” teaches us that our remembering brain tends to focus on the peak and the end of any particular experience.  We often forget duration.  An unfortunate consequence of this lack of knowledge and the tendencies of our brains is that we are surprised – SURPRISED! – when the outages do occur.  How useful might it be if every utility had to put in front of each customer the record of outages at that address before every storm season?  This could come with a reminder to make a plan for storms and possibly, in entrepreneurial fashion, suggestions for steps one can take and things to buy to maintain as much functionality as possible during an outage.  Why not encourage people to take responsibility for their energy needs during extreme and rare but foreseeable situations?  Those for whom the value is sufficient and who have sufficient resources will take steps to meet their most urgent energy needs.

Second, let’s talk about uneven outages across a particular utility’s service territory.  Not every feeder performs as well as every other one; there are differences.  Looking at how those differences show up, in extreme weather or otherwise, will often provide actionable information.  What makes the poor performers poor?  Why do the best performers stay operable?  Vastly decreasing the scope and duration of event-driven outages may not require a wholesale investment in upgraded equipment – or undergrounding! – across an entire utility.  We may need to simply bring all of a system up to average performance.

And that leads us to the next topic for our conversation: should utilities make it clear to customers that utility energy service is highly unlikely to ever be 24X7, five nines or whatever buzz word you want to use?  This is a postage-stamp service, designed to work very reliably under most circumstances.  More reliable energy services are obtainable, individually or perhaps even for a given area (community, industrial park, etc.) but NOT at the postage-stamp rate.  Furthermore, should we talk about what optional services utilities and others might offer customers who want to lower the number of times that they cannot achieve certain outcomes that are highly important to them because delivery of an energy input is cut off by a particular event?  This may not be operation of the entire structure to which the utility’s meter attaches, by the way.  Most households and businesses use energy for a whole range of outcomes, only some of which are valuable enough to want to support all of the time.  Other outcomes may be critical but only on a sporadic basis, every so many hours say, or so many hours so many times a day.   While we are on this topic, should we talk about what barriers prevent a community – whether of households, businesses, or otherwise – from cooperating to support a system that supplements (or even partly displaces) the utility system to provide more of the energy-related outcomes  that community wants, including access to energy during extreme weather events?

The electric energy utility industry is full of grandness: big utilities, big generating plants, huge service territories.  This grandness causes a blindness to the small solution, the non-central solution, the “a thousand different ways” solution.  In the wake of this most recent storm on the East Coast, let’s start our conversation about reliability by repeating together: “One size does not fit all.  One size does not fit all.”  We might end up somewhere different.

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