Cooperative Review - April 2018
Vol68-5 May 2018
SMECO lineman

Technological improvements pave the way

In 2017, SMECO made technological improvements to its computer software systems and its metering and electric system that improved customer service and reliability for the Cooperative’s customer-members. SMECO constantly strives to use technology to be more responsive, reliable, and resourceful, and each improvement furthers the Cooperative’s mission to provide reliable and competitively priced electricity and related services to its members.

One thing is for certain: information and accessibility are key in today’s fast-paced world.

SMECO’s implementation of an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) was a chief focus for the Cooperative in 2017. AMI provides two-way communication between the Cooperative and customer-members. During the 20th century, meter technology did not change much; and some of the meters on the system were 35–40 years old, needed replacement, and were technically obsolete. Smart meters, on the other hand, are modern, electronic meters that can do more than just measure energy use.

The Cooperative determined that installing smart meters would provide infrastructure that would benefit customer-members immediately and over the long term. With smart meters, tasks that used to take hours can now be completed in minutes. AMI will enable the Cooperative to remotely read the meters, monitor the voltage, and detect outages. The new meters help SMECO improve customer service and save money by reducing operational expenses. Benefits include:

  • Faster service for customers who open and close accounts
  • Fewer estimated bills
  • Data to help resolve billing and usage questions
  • Lower costs for meter reading and billing
  • Detailed hourly usage data to be made available to customers online
  • Improved outage detection and power restoration capabilities

In January, SMECO and its contractor, Utility Partners of America (UPA), began full deployment of smart meters throughout the Cooperative’s service area. By November, installation of more than 163,000 units was complete.

The achievement brings the Cooperative a major step closer to bringing all the benefits of smart meter technology to customer-members. Having two-way communications with the meters enables SMECO to respond more quickly to outages and increase the efficiency of our operations.

In 2017, SMECO and its members were realizing the benefits before the rollout was even completed—saving more than $3 million by the end of September 2017. By the end of the year, smart meters had already helped SMECO avoid more than 16,500 trips to customer locations for service connects and customer-requested disconnects. These numbers are expected to increase in the coming years.

As part of the deployment, SMECO plans to introduce a web portal in late 2018 that will provide hourly usage data to customer-members. Supplying customer-members with detailed information about their usage will provide them with greater awareness of what is driving energy use in the home and give them the power to make impactful changes to detect appliance problems earlier and save on monthly bills.

The smart meter initiative also offered SMECO the opportunity to inspect every meter base installation, some of which had been in use for several decades. Opening the meter base and inspecting each meter installation provided the Cooperative with the benefit of finding and fixing issues that were previously undetected. UPA and SMECO discovered electrical code violations, loose connections, settling wires, and burnt terminals in the meter bases. Many of the problems were related to deterioration caused by age, and some were caused by human error; but they all created a potential for an outage at the location and possible damage to structures and electrical equipment.

Month Smart Meters Installed
(cumulative)
January 23,925
February 35,571
March 51,837
April  65,370
May 81,100
June 96,546
July 109,973
August 129,578
September 147,183
October 160,950
November 163,633

Smart meter technology isn’t the only upgrade SMECO has made in the last year. Upgrades were also made to customer-focused computer applications to provide even greater functionality.

Smart meter installation

Along with the online Account Manager tool, SMECO had previously introduced the SMECO 24/7 mobile app and texting feature and, by December 31, 2017, almost 24,000 members had downloaded the app and even more members were using the online Account Manager. SMECO wants to see those numbers grow and puts a consistent effort into improving the user experience by listening to customer feedback for enhancement ideas.

SMECO’s texting service lets members report an outage, check outage status, obtain account balances, pay bills using the secure wallet, and receive outage, payment, and past due notices. Now, members can also choose an amount to pay, and then either pay immediately or on the due date.

The SMECO 24/7 app allows members to report an outage, check the outage status, and reference the outage map, receive news updates, and make payments from a smart phone or tablet. New functionality now allows members to use Account Manager credentials to log in through the app. This lets members review bills and payments, manage notification preferences, and make payments.

In Account Manager, SMECO added a new feature that will allow customer-members to update their AutoPay information. In the past, when a credit card expired, customers had to call SMECO to provide new card information. Now members can update credit card or bank account information directly in Account Manager. Enhanced notification preferences provide customer-members with the ability to receive termination notices via text or email.

Computer system upgrades were instituted to manage employee tasks and Cooperative assets with greater time and cost efficiency.

One such upgrade was the deployment of a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) in SMECO’s Customer Care Center. VDI takes all the information that would ordinarily be on each individual’s computer and stores it in a server in the data center. The Customer Care Center representatives can log into a virtual desktop from anywhere—a smartphone, iPad, laptop or desktop—to a server that provides access to all of the information and programs needed to perform their job.

Implementing VDI provides flexibility for Customer Care Center representatives and can reduce IT costs for the Cooperative by up to 30 percent. SMECO saves money on hardware and on IT support costs because it is easier to install upgrades and troubleshoot issues when the programs are maintained in one place rather than multiple places. VDI also offers greater protection for customer-member data because the data are stored on a server rather than on individual devices. VDI also reduces the chance of file corruption by viruses.

In 2017, SMECO also instituted an adaptive, dual internet functionality. This means the Cooperative maintains a dual, or backup, Internet Service Provider (ISP) to support a robust and redundant system. If the first ISP fails, the Cooperative can quickly switch over to the backup ISP and significantly reduce any downtime customer-members face when trying to access SMECO’s applications or online services.

With a service area incorporating 1,150 square miles, it’s imperative to have a system in place that helps track each piece of equipment used to provide electric service in that area. SMECO launched an Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) project, which will enable the Cooperative to track every asset in the field by inputting every pole, transformer, and protective device on the system. When assets are entered into the system, they are added to ArcGIS maps used by the Operations and

Engineering teams at SMECO, as well as all field personnel. EAM tracks the equipment over its life span and helps the team predict trouble before it happens.

Good asset management is essential for the Cooperative’s bottom line, but having insight on end-of-life issues that equipment might be facing—so that repairs and upgrades can be made prior to unexpected outages—is fundamental to reliable service. Data analytics ensure greater reliability and efficiency in SMECO’s system. The Cooperative maintains a large amount of information on its equipment and the causes of outages. Harnessing this information to predict problems before they arise has helped reduce the number of outages and the duration of outages faced in Southern Maryland.

Using data analytics, SMECO set up a use case for its Forestry Management division, which manages vegetation along SMECO rights-of-way on a four-year cycle.

For each feeder in its electric system, SMECO now monitors the rate of tree-caused outages, based on the miles of line and the length of time since the feeder’s right-of-way was last treated. The Cooperative can now predict which feeders will experience the most outages and schedule more frequent vegetation maintenance when necessary. This strategy went into practice in January 2017.

SMECO’s data analytics aren’t supported by a single tool, but on an array of tools based on different business requirements. Data analytics enable SMECO to operate more efficiently and effectively. With the full deployment of smart meters, we will begin to harness the real power of data analytics.

One powerful piece of information for the Cooperative—especially in a storm event—is crew location. In order to efficiently deploy and manage its fleet of 253 vehicles, SMECO implemented an Automated Vehicle Locator (AVL) solution that tracks each vehicle’s location. The AVL allows system operators to accurately dispatch the closest SMECO crew for emergency deployment, service calls, and outages to improve response times and utilize crews more efficiently. A secondary benefit to the AVL is improved safety for our crews and better management of fleet services overall. Each AVL reports engine diagnostics and codes that indicate when vehicle service is needed.

Drone survey of transmission line

SMECO’s technological improvements aren’t limited to the ground. Thanks to new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules that went into effect on August 29, 2016, which authorized the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes, SMECO is now pursuing the option of incorporating the use of drones into its utility line work. The rules allow electric utilities to fly drones that weigh less than 55 pounds below 400 feet without obtaining a waiver from the FAA. The flights must be conducted by certified commercial drone pilots, and they are limited to flying drones within sight of the operators. The FAA rule opens up a large opportunity to use remote-controlled drones to inspect transmission and distribution lines for storm damage, as well as periodic maintenance.

SMECO is taking steps to integrate the use of drones to enhance operations. In 2017, SMECO hired Unmanned Sensing Systems Innovations, LLC to conduct a Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) study of a transmission line and Aviation Systems Engineering Company to do a video study of another line in order to identify possible line damage, issues with structures along the lines, and the conditions along the right-of-way. These two drone inspections served as a proof of concept for future endeavors and helped SMECO identify logistical opportunities and obstacles. The first transmission line inspection covered 13.1 miles of an aging 69-kV transmission line and 172 poles; the inspection discovered a hot spot indicating possible damage to an insulator. The second transmission line inspection covered 10.7 miles of line and 93 pole structures. A two-man drone team—a pilot and the safety observer—captured high-definition digital photos and videos, georeferenced mapping data, and provided 3D digital mapping.

Drones equipped with sensors, cameras, and GPS units can be deployed to assess large areas more quickly than can ground crews. This capability will help speed up outage restoration efforts dramatically and discover failing equipment before it causes an outage.

One of the key components in the safe delivery of electricity is the recloser. Reclosers are automated circuit breakers that detect and compensate for faults on power lines. A falling tree limb might make brief contact with a line, so the recloser will open and give the fault three chances to clear on its own. If the fault still exists, the recloser will stay open—and power will not flow—until reset remotely by Operations or on site by a SMECO crew.

SMECO’s expanding use of smart technology involves the reclosers on its system. In August 2017, SMECO began installing electronic Versa-Tech II reclosers to replace older ones that used hydraulic switches. The new reclosers do far more than just handle faults. They provide data on load current, voltage, and power quality, greatly enhancing the Cooperative’s ability to manage the operation of its distribution system.

SMECO currently obtains load readings on feeder circuits by clipping a multimeter to the recloser to measure the amperage. The crew often has to use a bucket truck to reach the recloser and, given the size of SMECO’s electric system, checking many reclosers can be time-consuming. The Versa-Tech unit allows servicemen to request data from the recloser while standing at the base of the pole, using the Versa-Tech app on a smartphone or tablet.

Because the electronic reclosers don’t use hydraulic fluid to move the switches, they are much lighter than the old ones, and they won’t leak oil into the environment.

SMECO is installing the Versa-Tech units gradually, in locations where a hydraulic recloser has reached the end of its useful life or where repeated outages indicate a need for better diagnostics. Eventually all of the older models will be replaced. The more information SMECO can obtain from the devices on its system, the more it can improve system reliability.

System data are used by SMECO’s planning engineers to identify areas where more capacity may be needed or where aging facilities may need to be replaced, and data help drive SMECO’s short- and long-range construction work plans.

The planning engineers track the load and voltage profiles on each distribution feeder, substation, and transmission circuit on the electric system. They also project future loads and watch for potential trouble spots. Major fast-growing load centers in SMECO’s service area may receive particular focus. Analyzing historical trends in load data not only drives system forecasting but also helps to identify potential problem areas before they cause power interruptions.

In another effort to ensure stellar reliability, SMECO is installing current differential relays on some of its existing 69-kV transmission circuits and all newly constructed circuits. These protective relays measure the magnitude and phase angle of the current as it enters and leaves a segment of line. If the current doesn’t match at both ends, the protective relay senses a fault on the line and opens the circuit breakers, which improves the safety and functioning of the transmission lines.

Utilizing current-differential relaying technology on SMECO’s system provides multiple benefits.

  • It lessens stress on the equipment and enhances the power quality.
  • It provides precise fault location information to assist crews with finding a problem on a line.
  • It reduces the number of customer-members impacted by a fault’s resulting outage.

Current-differential relaying could not have been implemented a few decades ago because the technology requires high-speed communication paths that work at extreme speeds measured in micro-seconds.

Differential relays are among the many technological features that SMECO has implemented to improve reliability and reduce risk for the Cooperative. While it would be impossible to identify every risk the Cooperative could face, SMECO has implemented an Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) program. Through ERM, the Cooperative’s employees identify possible risks and they are prioritized according to impact, likelihood, and speed of onset. ERM creates a foundation for company-wide transparency, consistency, and participation.

Broader awareness helps everyone in the organization recognize the influences that one resource or function can have on others in various parts of the organization and increases an understanding of key business functions and critical assets and resources. ERM ensures improved coordination across departments and provides insights to help with strategic business planning.

The benefits of the numerous technological improvements that have been made are apparent in the speed of service restoration and reduced number of outages for SMECO’s members. The Cooperative’s success was reflected in feedback from the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) and SMECO’s highest score to date in the J.D. Power rankings.

At a PSC hearing held on July 25, 2017, SMECO recorded the best score in the state for the least number of outages that occurred during 2016 and met all state standards for service restoration during regular operations and major storm events. In addition, SMECO ranked fourth in the cooperative segment of the J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction study with a score of 783, just six points less than the top-ranked co-op. The top five cooperatives ranked higher than any of the large or midsize investor-owned utilities included in the nationwide study.

Other improvements and advancements being made at SMECO are meant to improve SMECO’s financial stability and increase customer-member involvement in the Cooperative’s business decisions.

An electric cooperative’s customer-members have the ability to vote each year for their representatives who serve on the board. While SMECO has approximately 137,000 members, voter participation had been declining and the Cooperative was looking for ways to increase member engagement and input. The main barrier to voting was that members were required to attend the annual meeting or request a mail-in ballot to vote.

Bylaw changes adopted by members in 2016 allowed SMECO to conduct voting solely by mail in 2017 and the result was a dramatic increase in participation. The 79th Annual Meeting on August 23 was the first in SMECO’s history without on-site voting in the Board of Directors election. Almost 9,500 customer-members voted by mail, representing a growth rate of more than 900 percent in voter participation. SMECO hopes to see increases in that number annually as more of its members take part in their right to have input into their Cooperative.

In the fall of 2017, SMECO and the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) launched Practical Electrical Utility Worker Training, a 12-week program of pre-apprentice courses focusing on the construction trade. During the first semester, five students began the program.

The Cooperative sees pre-apprentice training as important for the future of the electric industry. Utilities nationwide face the problem of an aging workforce. Lineman jobs are in high demand—the last time SMECO advertised for new apprentices, it received more than 430 applications.

The pre-apprentice program should help SMECO build a more diverse group of job applicants. The Board of Directors granted two scholarships to help defray the tuition cost for promising minority students for the fall 2017 semester.

SMECO linemen

Building and maintaining electric facilities can be hazardous work, and it requires a skilled workforce to perform the necessary duties safely in conditions that are often less than ideal. Individuals who perform line work must be well-trained to ensure their safety and the reliability of the electric system.

CSM’s new Center for Trades and Energy Training in Hughesville will host most of the courses. Along with core construction skills, the apprentice hopefuls will learn safety principles for excavation, flagging, and confined spaces. SMECO’s training yard at the Headquarters building will host the Job Site Practicum course, where students will learn the basics of climbing utility poles. Students who complete the program will receive hiring preference from SMECO, and, at the Cooperative’s request, electric contractors and other utilities in the region will grant the same preference. Employers who hire students from this pool are getting a new employee with the training necessary to be placed on the job site almost immediately.

Increased efficiency, improved operations, and the many technical advances instituted by the Cooperative have not only provided more reliable service to SMECO’s customer-members, they have also improved the financial standing of the Cooperative and decreased the cost of services to SMECO’s members.

SMECO submitted a filing to the Maryland PSC on May 31, 2017, to reduce its base energy charges by more than 10 percent for residential customers. The lower rates went into effect with August 2017 bills. The residential base energy rate for August was the lowest it had been in 12 years.

SMECO also filed a request with the PSC in August 2017 to decrease its distribution rates. On January 1, 2018, a more than $10 million annual decrease for SMECO’s customers went into effect.

The team at SMECO remains committed to finding new and improved ways to provide reliable, competitively-priced electricity and related services to its members.