NERC’s reliability oversight is bogged down on two fronts—standard-setting and compliance oversight. Progress depends on improving unwieldy process.
Tech experts weigh the options for improving power delivery.
“When I talk maintenance, it’s about maintaining the system to sustain itself,” he says. “That takes the form of vegetation management, breakdown overhauls, inspection, condition-based maintenance, or reliability-centered maintenance. There’s preventive [maintenance], there’s reactive, there’s condition-based. They’re all applicable and used by utilities. They’re all part of a utility’s asset-management strategy, of which maintenance is a big part.”
Although monitoring accounts for the biggest chunk of maintenance expenditures, vegetation management is next, preventing faults that would result from downed trees or unhindered plant growth. The latest threat, Edeson says, comes from “danger trees”—potential threats that can be identified, and removed, before they become major problems.
Utilities have developed expertise and processes—internally and within contractors—to improve vegetation-management practices. They are working with customers and state and local authorities to identify sick and deteriorating trees, and get those trees removed—and sometimes replaced with slower-growing, less-hazardous trees. “Hazardous tree removal is one of the best practices introduced in vegetation management in the past few years, along with understanding your growth patterns, the impact of rain, and trimming,” Edeson says. “It is a very expensive piece of the utility’s maintenance spend. You want the best value out of what you spend to keep the highest reliability.”
Tried and True
The best way to ensure reliability is not necessarily to look at newer technologies, but to ensure the best use of what’s already online and available. Innovative products are sexy, but they may distract utilities from proven steps that can add to reliable energy delivery and efficiency.
“We still see a lot of low-hanging fruit in conventional methods for improving reliability, such as improved analysis and planning, project prioritization, and condition monitoring,” Shlatz says. “For many companies, improvements in these areas will yield better returns than investments in technology in the near term. We really haven’t seen utilities rely on these non-traditional means for improving reliability, although long-term, these all offer potential.”
For now, concentrating on the basics may pay off with customers, who simply want to keep their lights on.
“I think the senior leaders at many of the top utilities have focused more and more on customer satisfaction and customer service, and reliability is a big piece of that,” PA Consulting’s Lewis says. “They’ve focused on that not only for the reliability requirements they have to meet, but because it’s good business.”