Reliability

Austin Energy ADMS upgrade advances with COVID-19 safety protocols

Deploying an Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS) is challenging in the best of times. Deploying an ADMS upgrade during COVID-19 only adds to the challenges.

Texas public power utility Austin Energy had “robust policies” in place to guard against the spread of COVID-19 before its ADMS upgrade, but for the in-person portion of the system operator training sessions related to the software upgrade, they decided to take “a lot of extra precautions,” Danny Ee, Austin Energy’s Director of System Operations and Advanced Grid Technologies, said.

“It was one of the most difficult decisions in my career to elect for a remote go-live during the pandemic,” Ee said. “However, we were determined to deliver the upgraded functionality despite the additional challenges and had the support of senior management and dedicated employees that were well prepared to make it a seamless upgrade.”

ADMS software monitors and optimizes a wide array of utility functions, including integration with outage maps, tie-ins with GIS mapping tools, notifications for utility field workers, distribution grid optimization, as well as providing analytical planning tools.

“ADMS is similar to Emergency Room triage for the healthcare industry,” Ee said. “It helps assess severity of issues, prioritize, and dispatch the appropriate staff to keep Austin’s power going. Without it, we would not have visibility to our grid and the ability to remotely control field equipment.”

Austin Energy deployed its first ADMS system in June 2014.

By 2020, it was time to upgrade to a newer version of the software. The upgrade, which went live in September, was the culmination of more than two years of preparation and was so extensive, “it was almost like installing a brand new system including all new servers and network infrastructure and extended the ADMS system user base by over 600 employees,” Ee said.

The ADMS Upgrade Project was focused on making a good thing better, Ee said. A good portion of the upgrade delivered improvements to usability, situational awareness, visualization and functionality that will improve monitoring, decision-making, optimization, reliability and security assessment of the electric grid and its components.

The ADMS Upgrade delivered expanded and enhanced functionality to existing system users and added applications for mobility/field crews and call centers. The new groups of users will have direct access to more information, which will help resolve customer outages more efficiently.

“The grid is changing, utilities are changing, and we have to be prepared,” Ee said. ADMS is an important tool in the transformation from a utility with one-way power flows to a smart utility that is continually responding to real time inputs and integrating multi-directional power flows, he said.

Austin Energy began implementing safety protocols related to COVID-19 early on. The City of Austin declared a local disaster in early March, allowing the utility to offer aid to customers having trouble paying their bills.

And, through a mix of new protocols and processes, Austin Energy has kept its employees safe and its operations running smoothly throughout the pandemic. About 1,400 of the utility’s 2,000 employees are now working from home.

Ee said the ADMS Upgrade deployment was supported completely remotely and was “intimidating” because the project teams were depending on on-site presence for several weeks leading up to the event, as well as on-site stabilization support after go live. Despite the change in plans due to COVID-19 restrictions, Ee said he is proud how the team worked through the implementation.

To keep employees safe through the pre-deployment system operator training, Ee and his team drew up an eight-page document of protocols. The training plan allows for only one trainer from the vendor, Mosaic, to be onsite. The trainer drove from Tulsa, Okla., to Austin, instead of flying, and quarantined for about one week before training began. The trainer also agreed to an initial COVID-19 test and would restrict his movements to his hotel and Austin Energy facilities for the duration of the training.

The trainer and the employees participating in the training, in addition to following regular COVID-19 safety protocols, such as wearing face masks and washing hands frequently, also agreed to regular temperature checks.

Austin Energy marked off six-foot perimeters around the work stations that will be used during the training, provided daily cleaning and has limited the areas of the utility’s facilities that can be accessed by the trainer and trainees.

The utility is also providing boxed breakfasts and lunches and bottled water to the participants. The pre-deployment system operator training course lasted four days and was limited to three or four trainees within the same shift per course to prevent cross-contamination. Six weeks of courses were scheduled.

Post-deployment in-person field crew training is ongoing – it will last until December – and sessions that are underway currently are focused on situational awareness and efficiencies that are now available to the Field crews.

“ADMS will bring us to the future,” Ee said. He credits the utility’s robust safety and health protocols with winning the support of management and employees alike. “I am pleased to report that the employees that were offered in-person training are a dedicated bunch of individuals that chose to participate in training despite these uncertain times. I’m honored by the commitment that is continually demonstrated. The high buy-in is what made it successful.”

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