A suitability assessment and performance optimisation is presented of narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) cellular technology for use in smart energy distribution networks. The focus is on the reliable and timely delivery of outage restoration and management (ORM) messages at the event of a local or regional power outage. Both the cellular NB-IoT and the energy distribution networks are modelled in a system-level simulator, which is used to carry out an extensive sensitivity analysis of the ORM service performance w.r.t. various radio network configurations in different environments. In particular, different packet schedulers are proposed and analysed, addressing device prioritization and subcarrier allocation as essential mechanisms in optimizing the service performance. Furthermore, we consider all three possible NB-IoT spectral deployment modes: in-band, guard-band and stand-alone deployment. Results show that, with a proposed near-optimal radio network configuration, the reliability of the ORM message delivery is close to 100% for the majority of power outage scenarios, while the observed 95th transfer delay percentile for the ORM messages is within the acceptable limit of 20 s. The study concludes that indeed NB-IoT is a suitable technology for supporting ORM services in smart energy distribution networks. © 2019, The Author(s).