A Louisiana electric cooperative is linking its communications technologies to improve system maintenance and speed outage restoration work, and the results are reducing risks to utility crews and enhancing overall system reliability.

“We’re using information collected through our various systems to provide real-time data layered on a single platform accessible to control room operators and crews in the field,” said Mark Phillips, chief engineering and operations officer for Baton Rouge-based DEMCO.

With more than 114,760 meters, DEMCO is Louisiana’s largest distribution co-op. Over the past 30 years, the co-op has made multiple system upgrades, including automated metering infrastructure, supervisory control and data acquisition systems, and geographic information systems.

Each of those systems helped improve operations, but making the best use of the data they provide was heavily dependent on analysis conducted in control rooms and then relayed to crews in the field.

“We had to do a lot of critical thinking to determine where the lights might be out and what circuits were most affected,” Phillips said. “When you are getting multiple calls from several different areas, looking through big, thick paper books to cross reference street names with power lines is difficult.”

With 20 years of distribution co-op operational experience, beginning as a line technician, Phillips used his knowledge of restoration, system maintenance and post-outage event analysis to redesign the co-op’s outage response applications to work together more effectively.

“We have five or six different ways that we're receiving information from the membership and devices that are on our system,” he said. “They're feeding this one hub that's collecting all this data, batching and bundling it all together to give us the clearest view of where problems are occurring.”

The results provide an “encyclopedic” view of systems refreshed daily to capture the most current information from its geographic information and outage management systems. When problems occur, that data is available to control center, operations and member services personnel. Members can also see more details of restoration underway in their areas on the co-op’s app.

The combined data has proved its value amid recent extreme weather events. In 2021, a major ice storm knocked out service to 42,000 of DEMCO’s meters in February and Hurricane Ida took down 4,000 transmission and distribution poles in August, rendering 90% of the co-op’s meters out of service. While both events required extensive restoration work involving co-op mutual aid from several states, Phillips says the ability to display real-time data across multiple platforms provided concise information to crews and contractors, improving safety and reducing restoration times.

“We’re using an interactive voice response system that allows members to report outages by phone and we’ve integrated text messaging,” he said. “Information provided by members is relayed instantly to our control room operators and is among the data elements that appear to our control room operators and our crews assigned in the field.”

Phillips said the data gives supervisory personnel more flexibility to manage and coordinate the work and movement of more crews who are working numerous incidents close by.

“I went from pushing one crew to the possibility of moving eight to 10 crews in a certain area,” said Phillips.

Restoration and maintenance projects are still supported with printed materials kept on hand in service trucks, but field crews now benefit from current data reflecting up-to-date information automatically captured from all sensors and reporting points on the co-op’s systems.

“When information is updated instantaneously, we’re able to display it throughout the restoration process,” Phillips said.

The co-op is also able to harness the data to better plan ahead.

“Our CEO and elected directors can consider the information when they are asked to approve maintenance and mitigation projects or review the details of major outage events,” said Phillips. “That enhances our overall ability to prepare for and respond to future challenges, and that helps us improve overall service for our members.”