Priority customers: when power really can't go out

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When power really can't go out

All customers are special, but some are (really) more special than others: Priority Customers.

Electricity is a basic need, and when power goes out, panic takes over the household, either because you were watching a movie or because your favorite ice cream is melting in the fridge.

These are the problems faced by most people when dealing with power outages, but there are other, more serious disturbances that can jeopardize the safety of the population or even the survival of certain people. Think of a Fire Department unable to communicate with the population during a storm, or of someone whose
survival depends on a machine.

This is why, in Portugal, the statuses of 'Priority Customer' and 'Customer with Special Needs' were created - to make sure certain customers receive special treatment, in keeping with their particular situation and, as the name suggests, with priority over the others.

This status is enshrined in the Service Quality Regulation of the ERSE - the organization that regulates the electricity, natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) sectors, and whose mission is to protect the interests of consumers.

Am I a Priority Customer?

Two groups of customers can take advantage of this special treatment: 'Priority Customers' and 'Customers with Special Needs'. Most 'Priority Customers' are organizations which, due to the nature of their activities, deserve special attention: those that provide safety or health services to the community, and which can therefore be severely affected by power outages.

But there are also priority customers of a domestic nature - people who depend on electricity to move around or even to survive. According to the ERSE Regulation, these are the Priority Customers:

  • Hospitals, healthcare centers, or organizations providing similar services
  • Security Forces
  • National security facilities
  • Fire Departments
  • Civil Protection Services
  • Maritime or air traffic safety and management equipment
  • Prison facilities
  • Domestic customers (and people living with them) whose survival or mobility depends on electricity supply

As for natural gas, Priority Customers include basic education establishments and facilities for the supply of natural gas for public transport.

Or a Customer with Special Needs?

But there are also 'Customers with Special Needs'. This group is comprised of people with some sort of physical limitation - visual, aural, olfactory or speech impairments which justify the installation of special equipment for the detection of gas leaks.

The person's impairment may be permanent or temporary, hence this status is reviewed on an annual basis. But the message is that special care is not reserved for customers whose life depends on electricity supply.  Less serious cases, if we can put it that way, may also benefit from it. It is therefore important to know the advantages of this service and find out whether there is someone in your family who could benefit from it.

First in line

So what is the difference, as far as service is concerned, between regular and priority customers? First of all, when dealing with Customers with Special Needs, energy distributors such as EDP Comercial, Iberdrola and Endesa are obliged to make sure these individuals have access to exactly the same information and service quality as the remaining population.

This may involve, for instance, providing Braille documentation to visually impaired customers, or implementing other measures to ensure that no customer is neglected due to a physical limitation.

As for Priority Customers (people and organizations which need uninterrupted energy supply), grid operators - those who are responsible for maintaining the grid, such as EDP Distribuição - have two further duties.

On the one hand, as EDP Distribuição Grid Sales Technician Armando Palavras explains, they have the duty to inform: "When grid operators schedule power outages to perform certain maintenance operations, they must warn these customers in advance, informing them that an interruption will occur on a certain day, during a certain period of time. It is a right of these customers, and an obligation on the part of grid operators: to inform them in advance and individually."

On the other hand, in the event of a power outage, grid operators must prioritize priority customers when restoring electricity or gas supply. A variable is therefore introduced in the procedures aimed at restoring power supply after a disruption: have any priority customers been affected? If so, the power supply restoration process will prioritize these customers.

Smarter grids

The technological evolution of electricity grids has contributed to faster power supply restoration and to better communicate with customers. All grid incidents are now georeferenced and the electricity infrastructure is thoroughly mapped. Therefore, when distributors interrupt the flow of energy on a particular infrastructure to carry out maintenance operations, they know exactly how many customers - and priority customers - have seen their power supply interrupted.

In Portugal, according to Armando Palavras, the InovGrid project played a crucial role in this evolution."In the domestic segment, we are replacing outdated meters with technologically advanced ones." This will make it possible, for instance, to see if there is a power supply disruption in any particular household, even if the customer is not there.

This project has introduced 'intelligence' in the management of the electricity grid, which will bring several advantages to all stakeholders: better management of produced and consumed energy, greater environmental sustainability, and various levels of automation that will make it possible to remotely handle many operations which would otherwise require the customer's presence.

This smart sensors network also makes it possible to have "online information regarding the technical  situation of the household's electricity system - to know whether it has energy supply or any disturbance has occurred, bringing several advantages." Hence, Armando Palavras says, "this is a project we are embracing."

Permanently available teams

EDP Distribuição's electricity restoration service is available seven days a week, including weekends and holidays, and the teams are the same for priority and regular customers: emergency teams just do their job according to the sequence that has been determined by the Command Center.

Incidents are first segmented by voltage type: the higher the voltage, the more customers are affected by an outage and vice-versa. As EDP Distribuição's Pedro Paulo explains, "with medium-voltage transformation stations, we affect a city, a neighborhood, or a large area with 30,000 customers.

As we move down to the low-voltage grid, we affect only 1,000 customers, and when we enter a building, for example, we affect only 20 customers... until we reach somebody's home, where we affect only one customer, who has no power supply and calls the Emergency Team."

This entire cycle is the responsibility of the electricity distributor and comprises all customers, regardless of their energy supplier or location. According to Pedro Paulo, "We don't even know who the customer's energy supplier is! That's why I jokingly say that everyone is our customer."

Due to the fact that the emergency team does not know who the customer's energy supplier is, all customers - even priority customers - are treated equally by EDP Distribuição; the only difference is the priority accorded to medium- and low-voltage situations.

"I remember a situation here in Lisbon in which we were called in the evening, after dinner, to the house of someone who lived on the third floor of a building without an elevator," says Carlos Barbosa, a member of the EDP Distribuição emergency team. "When we got there, my partners and I knocked on the door and everything was dark, as usual, but the lady who lived there moved around the house, in the dark, as if it were daylight. We were with our lanterns, and we thought, "well, this lady really knows her house." And when we were done, the lady said, "I basically need electricity to watch TV here on my couch," but we saw that the couch was standing next to the TV and we thought it was very strange. Only when the power was back on did we realize that the lady was blind... That's why she had the couch there, next to the TV.

It was a funny situation because we didn't see that coming." Emergency teams have some interesting stories that you can discover here, and these stories happen precisely they do not know who the end customer is.

The importance of this status

There about 3500 Priority Customers in Portugal, 2000 of which are defined as Customers with Special Needs. However, the number of people who could be benefiting from this service but are not is yet unknown. "If the customer does not request the service from their energy supplier, for us it is a perfectly normal installation. We don't know if there is a larger number of people (who could qualify as Customers with Special Needs) because this information has never been cross-checked with the Ministry of Health or Social Security," says Armando Palavras.

It is up to each customer to contact their energy supplier and say they are eligible to benefit from this special service. The energy supplier subsequently sends the Priority Customers list to the grid operator so that any maintenance work on the grid is organized according to the aforementioned criteria.

Armando Palavras also says that "it is the duty of the agents that provide basic services to develop special solutions for this group of customers. And it is also a social commitment. The company must try to incorporate this kind of solutions into its procedures, thus becoming part of the solution, in order to ensure that these individuals can lead a normal life."