UI steps up its ground game as hurricane season arrives

The 2016 Atlantic Hurricane Season started June 1, and United Illuminating has expanded its toolkit to help it keep the power on next time severe weather strikes Connecticut.

The company has rolled out new automated vehicle location (AVL) systems that provide real-time information about each UI and contractor vehicle out in the field. Also, field crews now head out armed with mobile data terminals so they can instantly update the job status and get their next assignments.

The upgrades are part of an ongoing, $56.4 million Operational Excellence Initiative that UI undertook after the major storms in 2011 and 2012 to overhaul its response and restoration capabilities. It seeks to provide UI’s restoration planners a more complete and up-to-date picture of what’s happening out in the field, during storms and fair weather alike.

“In the days after Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy, our crews and contractors did an exemplary job with the nuts-and-bolts work of restoration — clearing downed lines and rebuilding the electric system. But we needed to address some gaps in our situational awareness and our ability to communicate with customers and public officials,” said Joseph D. Thomas, vice president of electrical system operations at UI, a subsidiary of AVANGRID, Inc. (NYSE: AGR). “We had to be able to get information to and from the field in real time, and to develop a much clearer picture of what was happening outside our offices. In the last few years, we’ve made great strides toward closing those gaps.”

In the days after Tropical Storm Irene in particular, the ability to provide up-to-date information about crew locations was a source of frustration both inside and outside the company. Now, AVL devices are hard-wired into all UI vehicles. During storm events, 1,200 portable AVL devices are available for distribution to contractors, tree crews and mutual assistance crews from partner utilities. The initiative allows dispatchers, municipal liaisons and others to pinpoint the vehicles’ locations in real time via an interactive map and dispatch the closest crew to outages based on UI’s restoration priorities.

The improved mobile capabilities, which were rolled out earlier this year, are another significant upgrade. UI crews previously relied on paper work packages provided early in the day, which resulted in less flexibility with the restoration process. They used truck radios to receive instructions, report updates and close out jobs. Those tasks are now primarily performed using mobile devices, which access cellular networks and connect directly with UI’s outage-management and customer-information systems, as well as the customer web portal, providing real-time restoration information.

“With all this information at their fingertips, UI crews can provide more real-time information to customers and obtain new work more efficiently, so they can get the lights back on quickly and move on to the next task. Meanwhile, planners, dispatchers and supervisors can track virtually every step of the restoration process in real time,” Thomas said.

Hurricane researchers with the University of Colorado predict the 2016 Atlantic Hurricane Season will be more active than recent years. They forecast 12 named storms, with five becoming hurricanes and two reaching Category 3 strength or greater (winds exceeding 111 mph). UI has been working diligently to improve its storm-response capabilities and harden its system against the kind of damage the region saw during Irene and Sandy, in which 158,000 and 280,000 UI customers lost service, respectively.

UI is in the midst of an eight-year effort to reduce the number of outages that occur during storms by maintaining trees and other vegetation that encroach on power lines. Downed trees and branches are the primary cause of outages during major storms, and of those outages 67 percent are caused by trees within 8 feet of overhead power lines.

“Fortunately, we have not experienced a major storm in the past few years, but we are working continuously  to improve our storm-response capabilities so we can provide safe, reliable service in all kinds of weather,” Thomas said.