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Reliability Now!

Tech experts weigh the options for improving power delivery.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2007

a given year, excluding major outages. The average for the industry, Lewis says, is 120 minutes, but only 3 to 10 minutes of that is attributable to transmission and generation interruptions. “All the rest is on the distribution side,” Lewis says. “So we talk less about transmission and generation as it relates to the reliability that the end customer sees, because those are tiny fractions of the outages that they experience.”

Distribution Automation

Think of a Hollywood movie in which the villains remotely tap into a citywide grid and alter traffic lights and traffic patterns so as to pull off a heist. It’s that vision of remote access—without the nefarious intent, of course—that utilities are seeking to expand upon in making power distribution smoother for customers.

Via remote control, utilities can isolate a section of line, restore it, or switch around it to relieve load. The ability to restore service more quickly is attractive to utilities, which are “absolutely investing in that from a reliability perspective, a productivity perspective, and an effectiveness perspective,” Edeson says.

In addition to automation, Edeson says maintenance, monitoring and control and are essential to reliable power distribution. With newer equipment now able to interface either wirelessly or via hard-line connection to a utility’s SCADA system, monitoring that extra data becomes exponentially more important. “[It] can process more data and understand what to do safely, and without consequence,” Edeson says.

He sees automated metering infrastructure (AMI) as a big step in the right direction, because AMI allows customers to connect to the utility’s monitoring and control systems, and to send pricing signals and other clues back to the utility, ultimately becoming a piece in the chain from customer home to the utility’s GIS, operations system, SCADA system, and automation systems.

Best Maintenance Practices

A third crucial aspect of reliable power delivery is maintenance. Of the Black & Veatch study respondents, between 40 and 54 percent believe various capital replacement and maintenance programs will increase their related asset base by 5 percent.

In addition to securing more consistent power delivery to customers, utility investments make a positive impression on regulators.

Utilities are trying to stay on the good side of their state public utilities commissions, as PUCs push for better service. More reliable service leads to increased customer satisfaction and better relationships with regulators. Increased expenditures on reliability can lead to an improved bottom line, assuming the investments show positive results.

First-tier investments target aging transformers and vegetation management. Although many transformers have been in the field for half a century, they are “holding up just fine”—as long as utilities don’t overload them, says Gene Shlatz, associate director at Navigant Consulting.

“It really becomes an issue of planning criteria,” Shlatz says. “How much are utilities willing to load these transformers up to and beyond their loading capabilities? Utilities now are being more aggressive in transformer loading as they try to conserve capital.”

Vegetation management also has come under the microscope, as utilities become more judicious in spending decisions. However, Edeson sees vegetation management as one essential aspect of maintenance.