In union circles, they call it "burial insurance." That apt phrase denotes the severance, early retirement and re-training packages negotiated for veteran utility workers sideswiped by a changing...
IT Roundtable: The Digitized Grid
Some co-ops are combining AMR and SCADA, using AMR technologies from Turtle, DCSI, Hunt, and Cannon that can pull voltage data and get more distributed information.
We also see increasing use of the Internet for various things. We are working on an Internet-based software-defined radio for dispatch. It uses the Internet as a switch to allow radios on three different frequencies to communicate to each other. It's useful for work orders, vehicle location, and those kinds of things. Also a few members are doing Internet-based workforce management and automatic vehicle location, but it is a small minority. Everyone is interested, but few have implemented it to any extent.
We're doing a joint project with NRECA (the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association). We're co-sponsors with them on the Cooperative Research Network, which this year is doing a project to determine what co-ops could do with Internet connectivity if it were available throughout their distribution areas. We're looking at what options are available, in terms of automation and control.
Fortnightly: How are co-ops justifying telecom and IT investments to their members?
Collier: Primarily, it's about having better information to improve reliability and service quality. Utilities can better understand what's going on in their distribution system, respond quicker to outages, and get better information for billing. It's about operating the system more efficiently, economically, and reliably.
We have a broad diversity among co-ops. A couple hundred of them are doing nothing about automation. Some are very small and have no money. But others, like New Enterprise (Rural Electric Association) in Pennsylvania, with 14 employees and 3,300 meters, are tiny but have decided that if you are going to operate in the 21st century, there is a minimum amount of automation capabilities you must have.
Utilities are still using 100-year-old technology to generate, transmit and even switch and meter electricity. This is consistent with the story that [former EPRI Chairman] Kurt Yeager has been telling around the country since the [August 2003] blackout. Reliability and returns on investment are declining, while costs are rising. Something has to be done, and he thinks automation is the answer. We need 21st century monitoring and control of our T&D system. That's the only way to avoid reliability issues.
Fortnightly: After 9/11, communications have become a big deal as part of security and disaster-recovery plans. How are co-ops responding to that?
Collier: Our members are spending a lot more time and attention on how they would restore service in a post-blackout situation, or in an emergency or terrorist scare. How would they operate in disaster-recovery mode? What are their system-monitoring and control protocols?
The RUS (Rural Utilities Service) has issued a rule that requires a co-op that comes in for a federal loan guarantee to have a documented disaster-recovery plan before they can draw funds. That is occupying a lot of time for our members.
Fortnightly: Are co-ops focusing on regional coordination and reliability management?
Collier: Not much, in terms of getting together and asking how we can centrally organize. They see themselves as the tail at the