Technology helps co-op respond to massive power outage

"Up with the new crossarm."

Thousands in mid-Missouri experienced power outages during last week's storms, but the hardest hit electric co-operative in the state was Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, which is based in Tipton.

From the first reported outage Monday night until the last customer saw power again Saturday night, the co-op's outage lasted five days, two hours and 40 minutes. Preliminary estimates put the cost of repairing the damage around $1 million.

The electric co-op added up the numbers Monday and looked at the technology that helped them respond more quickly in this storm than was possible in the past. They also assessed what areas need improvement before disaster strikes again.

Spokesman John Agliata managed the company's Facebook page to keep customers informed. During the last big outage in 2007, he said Facebook was not as popular a form of communication as it is now. The co-op saw its online presence grow after the February 2011 blizzard, but now the page has 2,396 â??likesâ?? and thousands more viewers.

â??It opened eyes,â?? Agliata said of the pictures and videos he posted of the crews at work.

When line crews were working in areas not seen by co-op members, the pictures vividly showed the challenges they faced navigating heavy snow to reach poles in rural areas.

In addition to social media, technology has greatly improved for the co-op in the past year and officials said that made a difference in the speed of response to the massive outage. At the end of 2012, Co-Mo put the Outage Management System (OMS) to work. While not unique to Co-Mo Electric, the Association of Missouri Cooperatives reports the OMS is used by just four electric co-ops in mid-Missouri, including Three Rivers in Linn, Boone Electric in Columbia and Callaway Electric in Fulton.

Agliata described how it works like this: every customer has a â??smart meterâ?? that constantly talks to the co-op.

â??If the system sends out a signal asking, 'Are you there?' and the meter doesn't respond, it reports an outage and predicts the whole section of line is off,â?? Agliata said.

This alerts them to outages even before a customer calls in.

A couple of weeks before the storm hit, the co-operative put another outage reporting system in place. The outage map on their website shows where outages are located and the number of customers without power. Last week the at the height of the crisis, there were some 17,000 customers in the dark, or 53% of the total number served.

In the future, co-op officials hope that outage map will allow customers to enter their account number and see instantly if the power is off at their home. That would be helpful for the many customers who have second homes in the service area, which reaches from Boonville to Warsaw, just east of Sedalia to just west of Jefferson City.

Another form of technology that was put online during the outage will help co-op customers in the future. When phone lines were jammed, customers couldn't report their outage. By last Thursday they began to use IVR, an interactive voice response system. The system allows customers to report outages automatically and can give members informational messages from the co-op as well. Agliata said as many as 20 customer service representatives worked in shifts during the outage taking 7,524 calls. The automated IVR system answered an additional 865.

The review of the storm response Monday revealed one area where technology can be improved in the future. Software on the tablet computers used by line crews was difficult to decipher. Agliata said at times, the maps crews view contained too much information. A program with layered graphics could help workers see just what equipment they need to replace in the damaged area without the distraction of seeing other parts of the system.

Technology aside, it was humans who trudged through the snow and ice to repair the lines. According to the company's website, that effort involved all 70-plus Co-Mo employees and assistance from 128 linemen from other electric utilities.

â??We had some dang fine help,â?? said Fred Franken, Co-Moâ??s most senior lineman with more than 40 years on the cooperativeâ??s system.

And all of those crews completed the job safely.

â??We worked as safely as we ever have worked in a major disaster,â?? Ken Johnson, the cooperativeâ??s CEO and general manager, said.