Preparing Utilities for the 2020 Storm Season Amidst COVID-19

The warehouse and stores at utilities are at the center of all materials and inventory-related activities, especially during the storm season, when the focus is “keeping the lights on.” All utilities plan for this eventuality and are operationally geared to focus their efforts on keeping the line crews and repairs personnel supplied with construction and maintenance parts and equipment.  The situation during the coronavirus pandemic has been reversed somewhat, with even the normal activities at a standstill. This would be an ideal time for the warehouses and stores in the utility industry to dust off and review their internal policies and processes, even as they get ready for the upcoming storm season.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is upon us and it’s never too early to start preparing. Proper preparation can shorten the timeframe to restoring power, providing vital relief to customers and can improve operational effectiveness. To put this in perspective, think back to Hurricane Florence in 2018.  That storm alone caused more than 1.4 million customer outages and took about four to five days on average for restoring power.  It is important to note that preparation for storm restoration is not a one-size-fits-all solution; different utilities have different geographic areas to support their specific customer densities and geographic terrain. Being prepared is key to facing emergency situations of all types and requires a concerted effort in planning and preparing for the eventuality.

So, what can these essential utility organisations start doing now to prepare?

Speeding up internal processes

To start preparing, utility organisations should begin with reviewing their internal processes for maintaining inventory integrity (e.g. filling out paperwork on a timely basis, keeping systems up to date by updating accurate need dates, simplifying, digitising and automating business processes, etc.). This is critical to maintaining viable business continuity and cost management. Do we really need to continue doing things at the old pace? The review and acceleration of existing processes and the elimination of unnecessary steps where necessary.

Secondly, organizations should re-evaluate their materials requisition and approvals processes. These processes should be updated in order to optimize past years’ performance and minimise unnecessary downtime going into this next storm season. Organisations should ask, for example, is senior-level approval required for materials requisition of $50,000 and more. Often, most organisations have a well-defined structure and limits for requisitions approval; however, these may have been in place for many years and possibly, have outlived their usefulness.

Taking stock and optimizing inventory

During this time, it is vital to perform inventory analyses in their distribution centers, local stores and remote locations and update their systems accordingly. Utility organisations should diligently review material availability and lead times and ensure that the need dates are accurately reflected in the system, as well as review the different scenarios for obtaining material for both engineered and non-engineered work in the field.

Adding and removing materials inventory

In an effort to control the introduction of new stock items, all requests for new stock items typically include a letter of justification (often called the New Stock Item Form). This form needs to be reviewed and updated based on what has occurred over the last few storm seasons, to help best-prepare for what inventory needs can be expected. Similarly, it’s important to use these forms to optimise inventory and remove excess material demand that have proven unnecessary or wasteful in prior seasons.

Reviewing material returns processes

Typically, all damaged, incorrect and excess materials are required to be returned promptly to the appropriate warehouse facility by the field crew. But how often does this happen? Utilities need to establish well-defined processes to ensure these are done consistently. During the storm season, it is not uncommon for these returns to spill through the crack (e.g. reels of wires and cables do not have the store stock number and footage used/remaining written on them, leading to a significant delay in entering it back into inventory). Additionally, manual, paper-based systems are unfortunately all too common when it comes to stores and inventory in the utility industry. Automation and digitisation should be seriously considered to minimize delays and unnecessary downtime.

Preparation is key—whether it be in preparation for the current coronavirus pandemic or the upcoming hurricane season. While utility organisations continue to work to maintain the necessary infrastructure for communities struggling across the U.S., it is important to plan for the storm season in parallel. Not only will such preparation help these organisations optimise their processes and work more efficiently in the short-term, but it also will minimise the negative impact that storm seasons and pandemics of the future will have on our critical infrastructure.

Source: Electric Energy Online, 2020 (

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