Innovations impacting today’s utilities with Don Bowman


How does a rural electric cooperative, once used to serving dairy farms, transition into one of the fastest growing utilities on the East Coast?

That’s what Satellite Superhero’s Scott Mackenzie set out to learn when he sat down with Don Bowman, Vice President of Engineering and Operations, Assistant General Manager for Wake Electric Membership Corporation.

The cooperative serves 7 counties just north of Raleigh, North Carolina, and has experienced a growth rate that Bowman describes as “almost a meter [electric meter] an hour.” Plus, it was facing retirements by several key managers with years of experience and site knowledge.

Not surprisingly, the cooperative was ready for new ideas to keep up with its workload.

Advanced metering structure (AMI), Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), and some mobile technologies were already in place. The cooperative’s next step into technology was satellites and AI.

To learn more about innovations and climate technologies that have impacted this growing cooperative, read on. Or, watch the video.

Watch the full episode

Top three takeaways

Takeaway 1: Raise your resiliency with meter, mobile, and SCADA reporting.

Bowman describes the operations center of 40 years ago as a table, a telephone, and a paper map. Contrast that with today’s multiple screens that look like NASA.

Where once it would take a couple of customer phone calls to track an outage and pinpoint the repair zone, now individual meters report from all customer locations. And the SCADA system delivers fault information that can direct line workers to within 3-4 spans of the problem.

“It’s amazing what we’re able to do for our resilience,” he says.

Like Wake Electric, utilities that have put AMI and SCADA in place can boost flexibility and response further by making the data available not only in the operations center, but also via mobile devices to staff in the field.

“A lot of times, if you watch those blips of trucks [those nearby the outage on the operations center screen], they are headed that way anyway,” says Bowman. “They get a ding at the same time to let them know there’s something to look at.”

Get resiliency technology in place and you’re halfway there. But as this coop found, vegetation management poses a challenge outside of these tech resources.

Takeaway 2: Never lose your staff knowledge to retirements.

Like most utilities, Wake Electric has a lot of vegetation for operations and maintenance (O&M) to manage.

“We determined if you drove from Washington, DC, to LA that was 2,500 miles (about 4023.36 km),” says Bowman. “And here we are a small little utility, just north of Raleigh, and we have 3,900 miles (about 6276.44 km) of line.”

To avoid outages, it’s key to keep an eye on tree health and manage hazard trees. And that responsibility includes the trees outside of rights of way that Bowman describes as “tall enough and dead enough to still fall and cause havoc.”

In the past, the utility relied on seasoned employees who knew where all these dangerous spots were. The experienced staff didn’t have to search for problems because they typically knew where they were going to occur.

But with more retirements, that knowledge was walking out the door. The company needed a way to bring data about rights of way and outlier vegetation into the dispatch center.

Your best bet is to bring this data into a digital database. That keeps it within the company and makes it easy for new employees to get up to speed.

Wake Electric turned to satellites and AI to automate this process.

Takeaway 3: Map your network with satellites to prioritize risk and spend budget in the right places.

Wake Electric teamed up with us last year to combine our satellite images and AI to continuously monitor and evaluate its entire system. Our climate tech solution:

  • Measures distances within about one-foot accuracy horizontally and about three-foot accuracy vertically.
  • Scores every feeder by the number of homes served and the criticality of that feeder, and estimates growth around it.
  • Determines which T&D lines or feeders have the most urgent need for trimming and when trimming in other areas will be essential.
  • Matches budget to the most urgent needs.

The company is also looking forward to working with scans that will reveal the amount of chlorophyll in leaves to identify dying or dead trees.

“They’re now not only looking at rights of way. They’re looking outside of our rights of way, at what could be a danger tree, and pointing us there ahead of time,” Bowman explains. “Could be pretty amazing.”

To learn more about how innovators are powering operations, maintenance, and sustainability from space, subscribe to the Satellite Superheroes podcast:

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