For the past decade, Pennsylvania’s PECO has had an outage management system integrated with its automated meter reading technology. It has saved thousands of truck rolls and helped cut down on outages. But that was just the beginning.

Now the Exelon-owned utility has integrated a second-generation OMS with its distribution management system and smart meters, which are currently being deployed to its 1.6 million electric customers.

Other utilities such as San Diego Gas & Electric and Austin Energy have also embarked on sophisticated OMS integrations with their other systems. But not all utilities have had the chance to test the capabilities of these systems in a large storm, or to quantify the economic savings after each event. PECO has, and according to principal engineer Glenn Pritchard, “The savings are in the tens of millions of dollars."

PECO started integrating its first OMS into its AMR back in 2004, with a goal of saving about $400,000 annually in operations and maintenance, primarily from reduced overtime and the need for fewer outside contractors. At first, the utility just pinged AMR meters in batches to determine whether they were still functioning during and after storms.

“It was the first key step in getting the business hooked on accepting the technology,” Pritchard said during a panel at IEEE T&D in Chicago this month. “This was very successful, and we had to build new tools.”

Getting different departments on board also meant looking beyond just the technology integration. PECO held visioning sessions to look at how the capabilities would impact business processes.

The utility automated the system to ping the meters and receive "last-gasp" notifications that are sent if a meter goes out. But there were limitations to the system. AMR only allowed the pings to go to message communication concentrators, which collected signals for the mesh radio metering system, rather than to individual meters.

So many last-gasp messages would come in during large storms that it could slow down the system. “Sometimes it’s like you needed an OMS for the OMS,” said Pritchard. Latency was an issue when it came to receiving all of the restoration messages from meters, “but AMI has corrected that,” he added.

PECO’s smart grid investment in distribution automation, smart substations and advanced metering has brought even more advantages to the OMS, which was provided by Intergraph. The smart meters allow for more sophisticated tools, such as nested outage analysis that allows the back office and field crews to ensure that all customers are back on while a crew is still deployed.

Other features of what PECO calls its advanced metering outage system are displays for only actionable events. Instead of a screen showing every outage, it shows dispatchers only the ones that need to be addressed, and not those that already have a work order.

There are also enhanced reporting tools to communicate with the C-suite and regulators. In PECO, integrating AMI into the existing OMS allowed for a three-minute Customer Average Interruption Duration Index improvement, Pritchard said. Also, smart meters allow PECO to ping each individual meter for greater accuracy.  

The challenges PECO faced in upgrading the system were not necessarily technical, but more often related to processes, he noted. “Training and change management is always key to this. I cannot stress this enough,” he said. “You have to spend as much time on the delivery of the product -- what the benefits are and how they’ll use it.”

The benefits have already started to pay off, particularly when Superstorm Sandy passed through in 2012. Despite the fact that the smart meter deployment was only about 10 percent complete at the time, PECO calculated that about 50,000 customers experienced much shortage outages than otherwise would have been the case, and more than 6,000 truck rolls were avoided in the aftermath of the storm.

PECO now has more than 1 million meters deployed, and all 1.6 million will be installed by October. The utility is not alone in upgrading and integrating its OMS with AMI and distribution management systems, but other utilities should consider the advantages of making similar efforts to quantify and communicate the benefits both within the organization and externally.