Kathryn Kennington has worked in nearly every department during her 30-year electric co-op career. She started in customer service, shifted to stores and meter reading, and then spent nine years as a lineworker before moving to system operations.

That broad experience, at Umatilla Electric Cooperative in Hermiston, Oregon, and one earlier co-op, gives her a unique perspective on how real-time data is transforming co-ops, both in the office and out in the field.

Looking back on her time as a lineworker a little more than a decade ago, Kennington notes how co-ops have gone from “literally having paper maps on a wall that we’d have to refer to and now having that same information at your fingertips, being updated in real time or close to real time. It’s been a big leap.”

Umatilla Electric’s approach provides an example of how electric cooperatives are turning real-time data into real-time results. The co-op’s SCADA system monitors everything from load data to breakers to nitrogen levels at substations. In addition, it allows for various field devices to be operated remotely via a secure network connection.

“Our co-op has embraced technological advances providing more real-time information,” Kennington says. “[It] enhances safety, improves reliability, and enables faster response times.”

Much of the data is becoming available to employees on mobile apps when they’re out in the field or at home. When system operators are on call, “we have access to our SCADA systems on our iPads and computers,” she explains. “We don’t have control from home, but we can see it all from home, so I can pull up the same things I would be looking at in the office.”

Field crews also have access. Kennington points out that their work now not only includes physically working on the lines but also taking advantage of secure cellular communications and access to geographic information systems (GIS) and other data updated in near real-time through smartphones and iPads.

Working in conjunction with headquarters staff, she says, they’re able to save time and increase safety by using real-time data to pinpoint problems and two-way communications to deal with some of them remotely.

“Work that used to require a lineman to possibly ‘go over the river and through the woods’ to operate a piece of equipment may now be done by a keystroke on a computer,” Kennington says.

Adelaide Zumwalt, Umatilla Electric’s GIS administrator, says field personnel use Esri’s mobile applications, which updates them on the latest conditions on the co-op’s system, reduces paper flow, and improves timing and accuracy.

“We do our overhead and underground inspection using ArcGIS Collector,” she says. “When the crews find a location that needs maintenance, they notate it on a map. Immediately, the noted location can be seen back at the office and a crew can be assigned.”

And those crews have the ability to drill down into online GIS data if necessary.

“You can click on a pole,” Zumwalt says. “You can see the install year, grid number, assemblies, possibly photos of that pole, and all sorts of information that’s easily accessible.”

Umatilla Electric serves 10,600 members in the Columbia Basin and Blue Mountain country of northeastern Oregon and has been rapidly expanding. Staking crews are able to draw on GIS data that’s being constantly updated via mobile apps on their phones, Zumwalt notes. In addition, designers can use the data in a dashboard that includes a wealth of additional information on work orders and customer interactions.

Access to real-time mapping data in the field is becoming common among co-ops. David Pinney, NRECA software engineering manager, says results from NRECA’s 2019 co-op tech survey found that 68% of electric cooperatives have a mapping GIS, with 42% updating their GIS data continually. Sixty-five percent of those systems can be accessed on mobile apps.

To access the data, co-op crews are using ruggedized laptops, iPads, and smartphones. “It’s a mix of all three,” Pinney says, depending on the requirements of different personnel. Public cellular networks are the most common tool for communications.

New, innovative uses

The utility industry overall is increasingly turning to the use of real-time data in the field, according to a survey published in 2020 by Zebra Technologies, a company that specializes in data capture and identification. The survey found that 85% of responding utilities consider access to real-time data as vital to improving workflow.

Over the next five years, according to the survey, the number of utilities and energy companies that plan to equip more than half of their field technicians with mobile devices is expected to grow from 26% to 43%.

Three-fourths of those companies also believe mobile technology will improve worker satisfaction in their business over the next year. Based on the survey, the key applications on mobile devices are mapping, navigation, email, and portals to system databases.

Electric co-ops are expected to start using real-time data in the field in other new and innovative ways in the near future. Stan McHann, NRECA senior research engineer, says a pilot project this spring will test the potential of live-streaming data from drones. Currently, cooperatives are largely capturing data and processing it after the drone lands, he says. But 5G cellular should have the bandwidth to allow real-time analysis.

Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, is partnering with Copper Labs on a pilot project that uses real-time data collection from existing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to help consumer-members’ participation in—and understanding of—the co-op’s demand-response programs, says Chris Bilby, Holy Cross research and programs engineer.

The cooperative is also working to integrate real-time data collection for additional purposes. The first effort will focus on load disaggregation, to get a better picture of distributed energy resources on its system; the second will focus on voltage measurements that will supply additional data to a situational awareness platform under development; and the third will focus on providing additional data to member service representatives for high-bill calls. The overarching goal is to increase data transparency across co-op teams, improving operations and allowing staff to anticipate potential problems.

Pinney says more data from upgraded AMI is becoming available in real time as many AMI systems move to radio frequency (RF) mesh networks.

“You can get back way more data, and the success rates for reads are much better,” he says. “With RF, there’s an emphasis on not just pulling back kilowatt-hours but also voltage and temperature readings to get a better look at power issues on the system. I think we’ll see a lot more of that going forward.”

Pinney cautions that integrating data from different systems and presenting it in a reliable and useful format remains a challenge.

“The dream is to have the information consistent and available everywhere, but integrations are hard,” Pinney says. “We’re seeing more consistent data and better accessibility, but we still have a ways to go.”