The primary role of distribution operators has been consistent for a long time: to dynamically make decisions to help keep the lights on and protect the crew and the public. But getting at how they do it is more convoluted. The constant enhancement of technology, tools and techniques has helped operators and has made their job more complicated.

Why we should reshape operator training

Keeping control room operators aligned with industry innovations is critical. Continual changes in electric networks, control room technologies, and associated work processes make the need for updated and ongoing training content and methods inevitable. It is not sufficient to onboard new controllers and assume that they are ready to roll. A control room operator team requires the proper, up-to-date knowledge and skills sharped with ongoing training.

An expanding knowledge base

Electric companies have been keeping the lights on since the late 1800s. Over time, the distribution operator’s role has become more complicated as electrical generation, transmission and distribution have become more widespread and complex. Over the last several decades, the distribution operator’s focus has primarily been to react to the electrical distribution system and address the following questions:
• How do you prioritize and manage the distribution system for planned and unplanned work?
• What is the cause of an outage?
• When does a situation require switching?
• Where does the field personnel need to go and what do they need to do?

Experienced distribution operators can answer those questions and provide fairly stable electrical power to customers — whether using paper-based maps, more-recent electronic boards, or today’s complex computer systems. Operator training typically involves sitting next to an experienced operator and learning the role over time, often for several years. Operator tasks have
broadened to include, but are not limited to:
• Operating supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and devices.
• Responding to and managing SCADA alarms.
• Switching substation and field devices to isolate problems and reroute electricity.
• Restoring outages.
• Responding to emergencies.

As electrical distribution systems become more sophisticated, electric utility companies purchase advanced distribution management systems (ADMS) to handle the increased complexity. Modern systems also include distributed generation (such as renewable energy sources) and novel industry technologies (such as smart meters and smart devices that continually relay information).

These additions require operators to have investigative responsibilities, in addition to their operational duties. For example, knowledge of Fault Location Isolation and Service Restoration (FLISR) and Volt Var Optimization (VVo), and the ability to perform simulation studies in a duplicate training system are just a few of the new analytical expectations placed on operators.

Though these advanced technologies have been a part of transmission system management for a while, distribution operators rarely dealt with allocating energy resources or renewables coming onto the system. These ever-changing conditions result in shifting and increasing operator responsibilities, including enhanced duties, complex technical tasks, updated business processes, and the need to continually acquire new knowledge and skills.

Making successful operators

Successful operators must combine their knowledge of electrical networks with an enhanced understanding of what ADMS provides. Consider the advanced ADMS applications that go beyond the understanding of how electrical devices and networks work, such as:
• Emergency voltage reduction
• Distribution system demand response
• Peak shaving
• Power flow (load flow) results and management
• Load and voltage profile

Structured on-the-job training (OJT), where a trainee sits and learns beside a seasoned operator, will continue to be an essential part of control room operations. It is best suited for general workflow and utility-specific control room processes. However, this training method is no longer enough to effectively and efficiently train an operator across the full set of required knowledge, skills and responsibilities.

The evolution of operator training

Utility companies realize that OJT only exposes trainees to things that happen on the desk. It does not provide enough depth and breadth of information and experiences for new operators to learn the complete job, or enable experienced operators to meet continuing education requirements.

Advanced systems include a network simulator environment, such as an Operator Training Simulator (OTS). Developing and providing training in a simulation environment supports the current training requirements and accommodates future distribution operator situations. Simulators help operators gain knowledge and perfect the skills required to manage the electric distribution system during real-time operations in normal and emergency conditions.

Training simulators provide experiences with various real-life scenarios, advanced switching orders and system emergencies. Knowledge from a seasoned operator can be transferred to trainees through well-developed simulator training activities that include scenarios based on operators’ experiences.

Not every operator has all of the knowledge and skills to handle all situations. Utilities need to staff operators who can handle day-to-day situations and those who can proactively manage complex conditions. A well-thought-out training program advances operator trainees from electrical basics through planned and emergency distribution operations and beyond — to the point of advanced technical knowledge, data analytics and associated decision-making skills.

A control room that can sustain an ever-learning workforce through inevitable knowledge gaps (new hires and changing technologies) and knowledge loss (natural attrition) is nimble and better prepared to handle whatever comes along.

Continually improving performance

Training new hires and charting their progression to an acceptable competency level is a common concern. However, ongoing training of seasoned operators also can be challenging. Consider the following:
• Are your operators interested in new technologies and processes?
• Are they interested in training in general?
• Will they retain the knowledge learned in the training room and apply it back in the control room?
• Is your training system set up to handle technology changes?
• Do you have the means to provide on-the-job performance support (such as job aids and seasoned coaches)?
• Is your OJT program consistent, accurate and efficient?

Current and future operators need a training environment that provides the pressure of responding to unexpected events. A common problem is a lack of training for circumstances that catch an operator off-guard. This is where training simulators come into play.

Adults often learn best through hands-on trial and error, and making mistakes in a simulator environment is worry-free. Without a simulator, operators miss out on the lessons learned from situations that could negatively affect real-time operations. The ability to review, adjust and repeat operational scenarios results in confident, experienced operators.

Training simulators can reduce new operator training time from years to months. This allows knowledgeable trainees to fill shifts quicker. Posttraining, structured OJT programs with high-quality and relevant support tools (e.g., job aids and references) provide consistent, well-coached situations. A broad-based training program also provides refresher training to sharpen and maintain critical skills for seasoned operators — reducing the loss of knowledge and skills used in responding to infrequent but critical operating conditions.