Think Energy

Dealing with Texas-Sized Emergencies

Sep 12, 2022

When does an electricity issue become a crisis, and how important is communication from utilities to their customers during these times? Boyd Greene and Amanda Townsend, directors at Oncor Electric Delivery in Texas—which is the fifth largest utility in the United States serving 13 million people—are no stranger to facing large-scale power outages and emergencies. They shared their experience in managing these situations on this episode of thinkenergy. 

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Dan Seguin  00:06

This is thinkenergy, the podcast that helps you better understand the fast changing world of energy through conversations with game changers, industry leaders, and influencers. So join me, Dan Seguin, as I explore both traditional and unconventional facets of the energy industry. Hey, everyone, welcome back. According to the Weather Network, we can expect an increase in extreme weather events as a result of rising global temperatures. While assessing risk is in the DNA of every utility company, there are some utilities that are predispositioned to more frequent crises and emergencies. Is it hereditary? Or is it environmental? We're going to go with environmental. Utilities across the world are storm hardening their equipment and systems in preparation for more violent storms caused by climate change. In the past six years alone, Ottawa has had its share of extreme weather events, with multiple wind storms, ice storms, floods, heatwaves, tornadoes, and a derecho. There is an undeniable rising trend in frequency, and duration of power outages as a result of extreme weather. That because these natural events can cause extensive damage to electrical infrastructure, which means utilities are undertaking a number of initiatives to improve the resiliency of their systems, so that when storms do occur, they are as prepared as possible. So what do you do when you have extreme weather events often, and they're the size of Texas. According to NPR, Texas, like many southern states, has been ravaged by a number of natural disasters of late. Some view these events as regular occurrences for the disaster prone state. Everything from frequent storms, droughts, and floods, to multiple tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires. It is common for residents in Texas to be without power for days, even weeks at a time, depending on the weather event. Some view the increased frequency, and the extreme violent nature of these events as a sign of climate change, and possibly worse things come. So here's today's big question. How does an electric utility in an area prone to large scale natural disasters like Texas, approach large scale power outages and destruction to their infrastructure? And how do they fix them, so their customers can be restored in a timely manner? Today's guests are no strangers to facing emergencies head on in the electricity industry. Joining me on the show is Boyd Greene, and Amanda Townsend from Oncore Electric Delivery. Oncore is the largest transmission and distribution electric company in the state of Texas, and the fifth largest utility in the United States. It serves 13 million customers. Boyd and Amanda, welcome to the show. Okay, let's begin. Oncore has faced some major storms over the years. What are three of the biggest lessons you've learned from a people and communications perspective when handling in electricity crises?

Amanda Townsend  03:58

That's a great question. The three biggest ones, there's way more than three. But I think the first one is you really, in those times, you can never really over communicate. But you do have to make sure that your communication is clear and concise. You know, you really need to focus in and make sure that people are getting the information that they need on the channel that they need it. Same thing applies to blue sky, but it's even more pertinent when you're in a storm mode. I would also say in the absence of information, people make up their own reality. And you have to be prepared to work through that you've got to circumvent that you've got to prevent that. You've got to get with media, all these type of things that you really have to do to tell the story, tell the narrative, help people understand what the big picture is, because it's a very personal thing when whether your power is out or whatever is happening. It's personal, it's to you. And you have to recognize that but you also have to help them see it's not just you it's everybody; you're not singled out. And then last but not least, people will find you. So if you're not communicating, they will find you. I, you know, I've had people find me on Facebook on LinkedIn and send me messages. And, you know, they're just, they're, they're desperate for information. And so you know, you need to be out there, you need to be in front of it.

Boyd Greene  05:24

So if I can add to that, just from an operations perspective, it's extremely important that operations has a good relationship with the customer facing folks, because we rely on each other to get that message out, to help our customers.

Amanda Townsend  05:39

Okay, wondering if you could share with our listeners, what your communication strategy is, during the crises, who's in the room, and on your team? What are the vital roles? So it varies from storm to storm, but if we're talking large scale storm, you know, we're going through the full Incident Command Process, and you've got all leadership that's in the room together all trying to make decisions and give each other information, our communication strategy is really try to get ahead of weather that we can predict, right, start pushing out information on social, don't want to bother people. So we don't want to send like a ton of push alerts, because that's not really what they signed up for. They can check The Weather Channel, but really trying to make sure that people understand, hey, we're here we see it come in, we're ready to respond. That's the message we want to get out there. And then throughout the storm, you know, we're working closely with our operations folks getting information, trying to make sure that we're understanding the areas of impact, you know, if we're going to have to set up restoration areas are we going to have to bring in mutual assistance, what's really going on out there, so that we can turn around and tell the story. You know, in my role, I'm really focused on customer communications, we have another team that's really focused on media communications. And so we're all working together to make sure that we have the same narrative that we're giving the same information, so that there's no confusion. We also, you know, we will communicate through a lot of our other internal channels. So we have area managers that are responsible for working with city officials. And so if we know there's impacted areas, we can convey information out to them, we can develop social post anything that they need to communicate with their constituents, we do, we try to reach out each and every way that we can to capture everybody. Thanks for that. Let's dive into the technology channels or tactics you rely on most, during a crises to communicate with your customers and the public at large. Maybe you could expand on video, social maps, and so on. So we try to communicate across a lot of different channels, because you really want to meet the customer where they're at. So we do a lot of pushing things out on social we can do, you know, targeting by zip code, all those sorts of things. You know, that's somewhat effective. But that doesn't capture everybody. You know, during a crisis situation, when there's a large scale power outages, that's, you know, your storm map is the most valuable tool that you have in your belt, because that's where people are coming for information. That's where the media is hanging out. So anything you put out there is that's where your message is going to get cast from. So we really know that and we leverage that opportunity to provide as much information as we can. We'll also send out ad hoc text messages, we'll do outbound phone calls, especially as we get further into the storm. And maybe customers have been even longer without power, really making sure they understand, hey, we're in the area, you know, even little things like, "hey, you might see helicopters and drones, that's us doing damage evaluations, it's helping us restore your power". So they know we're there and we're working. Now, sometimes the crises or the event isn't the story. But the ones your customers tell you, how do you get ahead of the story before public opinion shapes it for you. So this goes back exactly to what I said and the absence of information, they make up their own reality. And you do have to get ahead of that. And a lot of that does come from our communications group. With media, we like to have a meteorologist on staff that can actually do live cast and talk about weather talk about what Oncore is doing, how we are preparing, give restoration updates, that has a really good strong following. So you do have to get out there in front of it. You know, you will have those times where things kind of spiral out of control. And in Texas, it's kind of unique, right? Because we're deregulated. So you've got a lot of parties, you know, on the same boat, trying to tell their own story. And so you, you also have to graciously kind of step aside sometimes and let ERCOT or the retailer's communicate with customers as well. So it's a, it's a shared communication space, which contributes to some confusion at times. So we really try to focus on making sure whatever we have to share is relevant to what we're doing. And it's very concise. Now. Okay. Given the wide spectrum of events you deal with, when it comes to power outages, what is the difference for you, between an issue and a crises? How are they defined? And what are the thresholds for Oncore?

Boyd Greene  10:45

With that question, I think I think we deal with issues every single day. That's just our bread and butter outages, right. But an issue can easily turn into a crisis if it's the right customer that's out. So a hospital being out- that can be a crisis. But in terms of storms, right, a crisis we define- there's several different levels. And it depends on what percentage of our customers are out. Does it affect just a district? Or is it an entire region that has problems? Is the- are the outages expected to be restored within less than 24 hours? If so, it's one level, if it's more than 48 hours, it's another level, eventually, we'll get to a point where we have so many customers out, affecting so much so many different regions, parts of regions, and we anticipate that it may be 72 hours or less that we're restoring customers, then we'll open up the SEC or System Emergency Center to provide that assistance.

Amanda Townsend  11:45

And I think to add on to that, you know, I think that the environmental conditions contribute to that too. So you can have a tornado come through and the next day, it's blue sky. Those customers being without power for three or four days is inconvenient, but it's not necessarily a crisis. But if you fast forward, and maybe you're in an ice storm, and you're in sub zero temperatures for three or four days without power, that changes the narrative.  Okay, cool. Now, during a major crisis, when restoration times are nearly impossible to estimate, what is involved to maintain positive public sentiment, credibility, and trust?

Boyd Greene  12:25

So I think it's important to get the message out as quickly as possible. And to provide that ERT as quickly as possible, which is difficult in these crisis situations. Say it's a tornado, hurricane, or some other significant event, to get that ERT out there. Because you don't have the damage assessment done as fast as you would like, you may not have the crews available to go do the restoration work. So all of those things, you have to get done. But you've got to get the message out first.

Amanda Townsend  12:58

Yeah, and that's where Boyd and I have to work closely together as well as our colleagues because, you know, my job is to give him a little bit of buffer, they've got to get troubleshooting done, they've got to figure out what all has to happen to restore in a certain area, it can be pulled down, there could be access issues, we run into that quite a bit. Icy roads, we've had trucks sink, you know, we've had alligators. I mean, there's a lot of things you run into. But you do have to take those things in consideration. And so our job is really to work together to provide as much information as we can, especially in that first 24 to 48 hours. And then as we were able to hone in on on a restoration time being able to communicate that.

Dan Seguin  13:44

Okay, I've got a follow up question here. Just how important are ETRs- estimated time restorations? And does their importance depend on if it's an issue or a crises?

Boyd Greene  13:59

So the ETR or the estimated restoration time is important in both situations. Whether it's just an issue or it's a it's a crisis event, the customer needs to know exactly, well not exactly- but they need to know about when they can expect restoration to happen. They have to plan their lives around these events. And when you provide it as best we can, it gets much more difficult in a crisis situation. Because you have to get your damage assessment done first, you've got to get your troubleshooting done. You've got crews to coordinate, and it just gets exponentially much harder to do that in a crisis situation. So our restoration philosophy is and this holds true on a blue sky day. Or we're going to a crisis level event right? So our restoration priorities always get the maximum number of customers on first, which is generally your higher order devices like your feeder breakers. Reclosure. So Wisconsin things with a caveat that we have to keep in mind we have have some critical infrastructure that's that's for safety to the public, maybe it's a hospital, could be a fire station, police station, those kinds of things, we have to build that into the equation. So it's the higher order devices first, keeping in mind just what I said about the other critical customers, and then we'll work our way down, because reality is, our first responders generally average about an hour per event to resolve it, or make a work order on it, right. So if I can have an employee spend one hour on a event as 1000 customers on it, it's much more effective and quicker restoration than it is to put them on an event that has 10 customers. So our customer count drops significantly in those first few hours that way.

Dan Seguin  15:47

Okay. What are your biggest worries about the increase in extreme weather events we are seeing? How are you preparing? How is Oncore preparing?

Boyd Greene  15:59

So yes, it is worse. And I think, given that we're coming out of COVID. My biggest worry for the increased activity is our supply chain. So we're a big utility, we have lots of inventory set aside, we're prepared for just about anything. But if a significant event were hit anywhere in the States, and affect multiple utilities, that supply chain could possibly get disrupted. That's, that's one thing I worry about.

Dan Seguin  16:35

Okay, I want you to finish these sentences here. During a crises never blank.

Boyd Greene  16:43


Dan Seguin  16:44

Okay. Why do you said that? And can you provide me with an example?

Boyd Greene  16:49

So, yes, so I've done this for quite a while. I've seen different folks in different roles. And those who panic are never effective at developing a good plan. And so it's hard not to get into panic mode, because things are happening so fast. But you have to remain calm. Trust your plan and build your plan around your folks.

Dan Seguin  17:14

Okay, next one, during a crises always blank.

Amanda Townsend  17:19

Think big.

Dan Seguin  17:21

Okay, now maybe expand? Why? Or can you provide me with an example?

Amanda Townsend  17:27

If you start getting too granular, you're not going to solve the big problem. And you're also going to stop working and communicating cross functionally.

Dan Seguin  17:37

Okay, wondering if you could unpack how you respond to large scale emergencies and disasters that exceed your capability to effectively respond and recover?

Boyd Greene  17:51

So our our system covers over 54,000 square miles. So the odds of any single event affecting our our whole service territorie is small. So, because we're so large, the areas that aren't impacted, we can move those resources into the area that is, so that that does help us. And so our territory, just for your listeners goes from the New Mexico border to the Louisiana border up to Oklahoma, and down to Central Texas. So it's pretty large. When, when the events exceed what we can do with that, then we'll call in mutual assistance, folks will have electric companies from other states come in, we'll call contractors from other states to come in. And so we've got a pretty robust system set up for that. And calls go out pretty quick, when we need them.

Amanda Townsend  18:47

And for customer communications, we also have our own search capabilities, where our contacts and our we can double our workforce within 24 hours. I also have internal resources that we tap into, you know, we've obviously encountered our fair share of large scale events. And, and winter storm Uri, we took more phone calls and one day than we did an entire year. And we also went from, you know, a norm of you know, 17 or 18,000 social media cases that you need to work per year to at our peak 35,000 an hour. And that's really where you have to, you can search but you can only search so far. And that's really where focusing on your digital communication platforms and focusing on those things like your store map, and really trying to get information out into the hands of the people is really critical. We're just about done here. When it comes to crises, what's the best advice you have ever received? And what's the best advice you've ever given?

Boyd Greene  19:58

So received was delegate. Good example. It wasn't long before I started working storms and really managing storms. My director kept asking me for information about every hour, same information. And after about the fourth or fifth time of asking me that, he pulled me aside. So we're walking back to a conference room so he can have a talk with me. And I know he was upset that I didn't get him the information, right. So as you're walking to the conference room, in my mind, I prepared my response. I'm busy, I've got this, all these other things are happening. And he said, You know, I've been watching you, you don't have the information that I needed, I had to go get it from somebody else. But you don't have it, because you're doing all your people's work. Let them do their jobs. Don't micromanage it, just follow up on. So you have to delegate to get things done.

Amanda Townsend  21:00

So I would say the best advice that I ever received is it's not about you. This is not your time to step up and try to be you know, the who's who of of the storm, you have a job to do and get it done. Work cross functionally support one another. And at the end of the day, it's all going to be okay.

Boyd Greene  21:22

And I think what you just said, is probably the best advice I've given to somebody. Stay calm. If you have to go to the room over there, turn your phone off and sit 15 minutes in the dark, but remain calm.

Dan Seguin  21:38

Well, Boyd, and Amanda, this is it. We've reached the end of another episode of the thinkenergy podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you had a lot of fun. Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the thinkenergy podcast. And don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review wherever you're listening. And to find out more about today's guests or previous episodes, visit thinkenergy I hope you'll join us again next time as we spark even more conversations about the energy of tomorrow.