Restoring Outages: Somebody Has To Be Last

Have you ever been the last one picked when choosing up sides for a team?  Or the last in line to get tickets for the new blockbuster movie or playoff game?  Or the last in line hoping they’ll still have the latest smart phone when you reach the door?

Nobody likes to be last.  It’s discomforting and anxiety-producing.  But just as surely as “Z” follows well after “A,” or as surely as the Marlins won’t be going to the World Series anytime soon, somebody has to be last.

The not-so-funny thing is that, in any major outage event, utility restoration planners and engineers have a pretty good idea of who those last customers to be restored are going to be.  Being last is a simple fact of customer density, proximity to critical facilities, system design and the space-time continuum.  After 2 or 3 big outages, even those last customers themselves get the idea.  But that doesn’t mean they come to appreciate the distinction.

That’s when trouble can get stacked upon trouble.  In some areas, urban flight has begotten suburban flight, which in turn has begotten upper socio-economic domestic enclaves far from existing substations and well-developed grids.  And the lords and ladies of those McMansions know how to complain and who to complain to.

Moreover, you don’t have to live in a remote location to get the feeling that your utility doesn’t love you.  Smart grid technology can switch your neighbors’ lights on while you’re still in the dark.  Or the feeder that serves the next block could be energized while yours isn’t.  Or smaller outages could be embedded within bigger ones, requiring block-by-block fighting till everyone is back on line.

Invariably, the various stakeholders come into play.  No one disputes the effort to bring essential services like hospitals, nursing homes, schools and essential government  services back first, but even doing that can require time and significant resources.  But there aren’t a lot of businesses that are willing to go quietly to the back of the line.  The longer things last, the more politicians and the media feel obliged to criticize, which could lead to hearings, audits and regulatory penalties for poor performance.  Then comes a downward spiral – less revenue – less work on lines – more outages – more unhappy customers – more unhappy politicians and investors.

Apart from additional investment in technology and the grid, there are ways to at least try to minimize the potential damage that those on the back end of a restoration can inflict:

  • Targeted Public Forums:  Focus on neighborhoods and communities that are most frequently the “last in line.”  Send your Speakers Bureau members to talk with clubs, organizations, PTO’s – anybody that will listen – to share the facts and provide helpful advice.
  • Schedule “last in line” pre-storm briefings with news media:  This may take some chutzpah – pitch your concern for those who are bound to be last in line and detail ideas for coping with very long outages.  It could be a novel “hook” that could attract more attention than what the media are used to seeing.  Since utilities so often emphasize their concern for those who must be “first in line,” showing empathy for those “last in line” could make sure your story gets attention.
  • Leverage social media:  Use the “last in line” theme to draw attention to your pre-storm YouTube, Facebook and Twitter posts.
  • Visit officials and politicians repeatedly:  Make sure your liaison personnel maintain open lines of communication with community officials year-round to foster an ongoing spirit of cooperation. The best reason for frequent networking is that things change. People inside and outside the company move on and take new jobs. The mayor you worked with so successfully last year may have been voted out of office; the police chief may have retired. So all your current stakeholders need to be instructed and reminded – repeatedly – of how storm restoration works and how you can help each other.  And demonstrate your concern, empathy and efforts to help those “last in line.”

“When looking for a lost item why do we say “I know it’s going to be in the last place I look.” Of course it’s going to be in the last place you look, who finds something and keeps on looking for it?”

George Carlin

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