Operating strategies for emerging market utilities during a Pandemic

Given recent events, I've been thinking a lot about what our customers - the distribution and microgrid utilities serving emerging markets - are going through right now. In our industry, we talk a lot about resilient grids, specifically how smart grids enable that resiliency. We have an opportunity to think critically about how these resiliency initiatives are playing out in a real-life scenario as pivotal as this.  

Access to electricity is as essential during the Coronavirus pandemic as any time before. As the World Economic Forum found, "The ability for doctors and first responders to treat infected populations is based on the assumption that clinics, medical equipment, and medicines are fully functioning with access to sufficient, uninterrupted, reliable electricity. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that only 28% of health facilities have access to reliable electricity." Maintaining service reliability for critical facilities and services during times like this is arguably just as necessary as ensuring healthcare providers have appropriate personal protective equipment.

The Coronavirus pandemic is causing every organization, including microgrid operators and distribution utilities, to re-formulate how they operate to meet customer needs while also protecting employees. In reflecting on the situation, I wanted to share a few strategies utility operators can employ to protect the health of their workforce during the Coronavirus pandemic while still successfully running operations.  

Manage load closely. Use situational awareness to understand load profiles and reprioritize for critical infrastructure.

In pandemic scenarios, a reliable electricity supply is most important for critical infrastructure, like hospitals, medical offices, and government buildings. Utilities and microgrids can reduce the frequency of outages for these critical customers through real-time load monitoring and customer load limiting. Utilities can limit the consumption of non-critical customers to ensure uninterrupted service for priority customers (doctors’ offices, medical care centers, and essential businesses like grocery stores) during times of low supply or high demand. Historical trend analysis can help utilities figure out what those limits should be. We are also seeing many commercial businesses temporarily close. Through the use of grid management platforms like SparkMeter's, distribution and microgrid utilities can reprioritize that newly available capacity to customers that need it most.

Only dispatch service and field personnel as absolutely needed, and to the precise locations required.

Distribution utilities and microgrid operators should use real-time information about the quality of service across their sites, and leverage that information to prioritize and plan field visits. Situational awareness of the status of power systems, usage levels, and power quality enables targeted responses to disruptions to minimize employees' time in the field (where COVID-19 exposure is presumably highest). Deploying only necessary field visits protects the team and the communities they operate in by avoiding non-essential visitors and contact between individuals that might spread the Coronavirus. Utilities with existing customer service call centers will also need to adapt those systems to function remotely, allowing their agents to handle call requests from home. With a cloud-based platform like SparkMeter’s Koios Cloud Platform, those agents can quickly determine why a customer calling in doesn’t have power, which can mitigate unnecessary field visits.

Enable system operators to work in isolation or remotely, via cloud-based platforms.

With a global mandate to ‘social distance,’ many utility operators are struggling with the decision to risk workers’ health by bringing them into the office to maintain grid operations or risk possible drops in grid reliability from running a skeleton crew or leaving centralized systems unmanned. Utilities that use cloud-based grid management systems to resolve customer and technical issues remotely can maintain system reliability and reduce transmission of COVID-19 amongst employees simultaneously. While implementing cloud-based systems is not done overnight, this will likely not be the last global crisis we encounter this century. Distribution utilities and microgrid operators who are running grid operations that require employees to be in a single physical location should begin evaluating and start considering cloud-based solutions today to build resilience for the next crisis.

Set up mobile money or other cashless payment integrations to minimize human-to-human contact for payments.

Unlike microgrid utilities, many distribution utilities in emerging markets still operate physical locations to serve customers and collect payment in cash. With the ubiquity of mobile money, distribution utilities should take a note from their microgrid peers by setting up mobile money payment options for customers and encouraging their use over visiting physical customer service locations. Over half of SparkMeter’s microgrid utility customers use mobile money for payment, and over 50% of payments are cashless. As the need for less physical interaction intensifies, encouraging users to leverage mobile money platforms offers secure payment channels and no face-to-face contact.

Discover customer needs, communicate with customers proactively, and provide payment flexibility during the economic downturn.

Timely and consistent communication with end-users is an essential part of service during periods of uncertainty. There is no better time than now for utilities to gain a better understanding of their customers’ evolving needs - how many of their customers have unmet or suppressed peak demand that the utility is unable to serve? Where do customers have flexibility on load shifting or demand reduction that the utility can deploy to improve system reliability and to best meet the needs of critical infrastructure?  Utilities should also be using their customer communications tools to keep customers informed. Setting automated alerts for low balances will help customers plan accordingly to ensure power reliability. Developing a messaging guidebook and leveraging digital communications tools will help coordinate messaging to keep users informed about local and site-wide events affecting their electricity in these dire times. With SparkMeter’s platform, utilities can configure custom SMS communications with their customers, or use the API to build customer-facing web or mobile applications.  As financial burdens become tighter and more unpredictable, communicating about pre-paid or metered payment options can provide flexibility for customers going through additional financial hardship. Offering flexible payment options helps families prepare, plan, and work within whatever circumstances might arise.

During these unprecedented times, utility operators must use every tool at their disposal and integrate new tools as best they can to protect their employees and the communities they operate in, while maintaining the quality of operations. At a time when we still don't know how long this pandemic will last or its effects on developing markets, it has never been more important to ensure utility and microgrid systems are robust, real-time, flexible, and customer-oriented.

For more information about SparkMeter’s grid management products and solutions, feel free to reach out to me directly, or email contact@sparkmeter.io.