Eastern utilities and another hard lesson

Mother Nature strikes again, with massive thunderstorms

Phil Carson | Jul 02, 2012

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The wildfires that raged across Colorado's Front Range in past weeks and the storms that rocked the Eastern states late last week present challenges to both utilities and end-use customers alike.

To my knowledge, affected utilities in Colorado incurred no outages as a result of the fires that threatened their communities. In the East, no such luck, as massive thunderstorms swept the region, unleashing wind and rain and leaving dangerously high temperatures in their wake.

Widespread and lingering outages were the norm in many Eastern states. The impacts were heightened by a number of heat-related deaths. 

To my mind, the situations in both West and East call for examining a few issues.

As with other high-impact natural disasters, these events remind us that the fury of Mother Nature can overcome the best laid plans and systems devised by humankind.

Utilities have no choice but to be honest about the fallibility of their systems simply because it's true. Customers and their elected representatives probably need to be more honest with themselves about this element of the bigger picture.

Careful analysis must identify the many factors at play in the Eastern scenario in order to extract meaningful lessons. And both utilities and customers must honestly discern the facts and their implications.

Yesterday I did hear from a source, anecdotally, that back-of-envelope math pegged last fall's storm-related outages in the East as affecting perhaps three million people and that this time around that number swelled to perhaps four million. That raises the uncomfortable question of whether utilities and customers learned anything from that historic debacle and whether lessons have been learned and acted upon or ignored.  

It strikes me that Exhibit A (last fall's storms) and Exhibit B (last weekend's storms) don't bode well for utilities and their sales pitch around smart grid, despite the fact that grid modernization doesn't get done in 9 months.

But it does offer the opportunity for stakeholders to honestly hone more realistic arguments for the investments needed in grid modernization, while eschewing the hype that would equate the installation of smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure with, for instance, more rapid restoration of service.  

Perhaps, as critics charge, the solution is nothing more sophisticated than devoting greater resources to vegetation management and better management and coordination of restoration efforts. Were these steps, in fact, mandated after last fall's outages? If so, were they carried out? Others will argue for undergrounding power lines, which aids reliability at higher cost. These actions fall under standard cost-benefit models for risk management. You can spend out the wazoo and never achieve full reliability or you can scrimp and accept the consequences. Naturally, an affordable middle ground beckons, but it comes with responsibilities for all.  

Perhaps, as utilities might argue, these events merely underscore the power of Mother Nature and the urgent need for grid modernization. An honest tagline would be: With results yet to come.  

We've written about this in at least two previous columns: "Managing Expectations for Outages" and "Managing Outages: Scale and Granularity Matter."

The fact is, improved outage management does not simply flow from the installation of smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure or from the integration of new outage management systems or other technologies. But end-use customers deserve to hear from utilities how their investments in these and other technologies can and will cut natural disaster-related outages and speed restoration. 

I suspect the linear sprawl of the grid itself—that is, the miles of wires that transmit and distribute electrical power—poses a significant maintenance challenge and a hurdle to certain restoration challenges. That's the argument for de-centralized power systems such as microgrids, solar gardens and community energy storage. But with billions of taxpayer dollars invested nationally and hundreds of millions requested and often approved locally, end users not only deserve an explanation, the credibility of the utilities involved depends on it.

Braying columnists aside, political leaders with egg on their face will demand these explanations and utilities will be bound to deliver them. If the explanations include better vegetation management and improved coordination of restoration efforts, the upshot may be painful: so what's changed since last October, when these same factors were cited? 

I remain open-minded as to the answers. After all, these areas indeed are getting walloped by Mother Nature. But we're bound to learn and improve both our understanding of the possible as well as actionable steps to mitigate Mother Nature's power. If we're developing lessons learned, I'd like to know what they are.

As for customers, these lessons learned are important, too. The grid is not infallible, nor are the utilities that build and operate it. Flicking a switch is not an automatic guarantee of electricity. In some cases, unilateral action may be required to buffer these truths. Honest fact-finding in such circumstances may be an oxymoron, given the human propensity to point fingers. In the end, however, we'll have to adjust our expectations, while taking concrete steps to improve grid reliability. 

Phil Carson 
Editor-in-chief
Intelligent Utility Daily
pcarson@energycentral.com
303-228-4757

 

 

 

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Comments

Eastern Utiliites, credibility and reliability

I've been living in the DC area for the past six years. Before that I lived out West. The number of outages is less out West because there is more public utility and less investment bank.

During the latest outage the Maryland power company  PEPCO blamed above ground power lines for vulnerability and failure. The Virginia power company blamed underground power lines for vulnerability and failure.  Both stories ran in the same edition of the local media. In essence, the above ground/below ground excuse is a false dichotomy. What is real is investing in infrastructure.

During my work in the Energy business I came to learn that power companies owned and run as "investments" consider spending money on infrastructure as "losses".  So they minimize said investments to maximize returns. The telecommunications companies, in contrast, have real competition so they have to provide reliabile service, at least at present.

What is needed, given the absence of competition is more of a "public utility" structure with well enforced service level agreements. While communications costs have come down, the power generating business has not reduced costs, has decreased reliability and led to scandals such as Enron.

The public should deserve better and the industry should be reengineered to do better. Government has a role here and should encourage real productivity improvement. I'm not holding my breath.

Actually ...

I may be still shaking off the effects of wildfire smoke and grilled hamburgers from yesterday, but I think your thesis may be off. Investing in infrastructure is exactly what utilities do to earn a rate of return, so they tend not to be shy in that area. Correct me if I'm wrong. 

On the other hand, operational costs such as vegetation management and outage restoration results in good or bad scores in well-defined performance metrics. (SAIDI and her sisters.) So there'd seem to be incentives to do well there, too.

Because pointing at Mother Nature (i.e., uncontrollable forces) has some truth to it, that tends to be the default position, I fear. 

However, it is enlightening to hear that arguments were made both for above ground/underground power lines as the problem. Would you provide URLs to those articles? Comparing/contrasting the logic would be an enlightening exercise for us all. 

Regards, Phil Carson 

Better communication

Consumers are willing to accept outages caused by Mother Nature--even extended ones where the severity warrants it. We all live in the real world.

In fact, when the power goes out, people really want to know just one thing: How long is it going to be out at MY house? 

The real problem for utilities isn't the outage, itself. It's the communication around the outage--because utilities can rarely answer that one question for each individual customer. But consumers have come to expect that level of service from other providers, like the call-center that tells them how many minutes they'll be on hold, or FedEx that emails them each time their package moves closer to their doorstep.

This information is valuable not because it changes anything, but because it gives the consumer some control, some ability to plan around the problem. 

So more vegetation management and smart grid wizardry may be part of the answer to managing outages. But a better answer--and a much cheaper one--is to invest in the tracking and the communication system around outages.

After all, the average consumer understands that 100% reliability isn't worth the price. The average consumer is actually pretty forgiving in the face of calamity. But she gets mad when nobody at the utility can tell her anything about what really matters: When is the power coming back on at HER house?

Malcolm Smith

PowerPlay, Inc. 

Good point

Thanks Malcolm, 

While some customers will put up with some service outages, I'm not sure I buy that they're as patient as you suggest. However, you add a great point that some utilities are working on: timely and accurate restoration estimates and the best means to communicate them to customers. 

That's certainly an incremental step in the right direction. 

Regards, Phil Carson

Underground versus outage prevention and restoration

The internet also experiences outages based on equipment failure in the local distribution network (as I have experienced several times in the last year).  There may be redundancy in certain parts of the internet network but not everywhere, especially in the part of the network that delivers service to individual homes and businesses.  However, the internet distribution network is typically not affected by wind or trees because it is underground.  

One of the issues is the cost of putting distribution networks underground.  If the distribution network is above ground, then vegetation management is a must, and some regions of the country, such as the Northeast, have to deal with more trees than other regions.  Customers don't like outages but they also don't like their trees trimmed to accommodate distribution lines.  If we're going to be facing more severe weather from here on out, which seems to be happening anecdotally but may not be confirmed until 20 years from now (and whether it's climate change or a normal weather cycle may not really matter), then perhaps it's time to revisit the costs of undergrounding versus the cost of restoration, vegetation management and the customer costs of outages.

It takes an outage for most people to understand the value of being connected to the grid - for  starting air conditioners, etc.  Even if people invest in onsite generation, they may still need to be connected to the grid.

Economic analysis would help

Thanks for this comment. 

Perhaps the aggregate costs associated with major storms such as the ones experienced in the East last week should be compared to the cost of undergrounding, in certain areas. 

The obvious variables include how long a window do you look at storm costs and how do you value the lack of outages that undergrounding might provide? And in which areas would there be the political will to spend big dough for un-measurable benefits? 

Regards, Phil Carson 

Hard lessons

I appreciated Phil Carson's recent article on the recent outages and the need for lessons to be learned although I'm not sure I see the corollary between AMI and improvements in restoration times. The business case for AMI could be focused on a variety of other financially tangible benefits such as support for dynamic rate structures, theft prevention, pre-pay/debt mitigation, load curtailment etc. etc., however, accelerating restorations is not one of them. Of course, visibility is greatly improved but our ability to get power back-on is not enhanced by AMI. That being said, there are a myriad of other smart grid components that could enable improvements, as you mention, from microgrids to community storage, however, we are many years from seeing sufficient ubiquity to rely on these for widespread grid reliability. Undergrounding and interference mitigation (e.g. vegetation, ice) should still be the focus.

 

AMI and outage restoration

While you're right that the AMI business case relies on tangible efficiencies in the distribtion system, it would easy to document the many, many utilities that have sold smart meters and AMI to regulators and the public by arguing that those systems help pinpoint outages and their causes, thus speeding restoration. That is a common refrain in grid modernization. And we've discussed in these pages that such an outcome is not simple or assured. 

I find it fascinating that you focus on undergrounding and vegetation management as do-able improvements to mitigate outages and speed restoration just as another reader here dismisses them and focuses on centralized power as the culprit. 

I love this forum!

Regards, Phil Carson 

Hard lessons

I appreciated Phil Carson's recent article on the recent outages and the need for lessons to be learned although I'm not sure I see the corollary between AMI and improvements in restoration times. The business case for AMI could be focused on a variety of other financially tangible benefits such as support for dynamic rate structures, theft prevention, pre-pay/debt mitigation, load curtailment etc. etc., however, accelerating restorations is not one of them. Of course, visibility is greatly improved but our ability to get power back-on is not enhanced by AMI. That being said, there are a myriad of other smart grid components that could enable improvements, as you mention, from microgrids to community storage, however, we are many years from seeing sufficient ubiquity to rely on these for widespread grid reliability. Undergrounding and interference mitigation (e.g. vegetation, ice) should still be the focus.

 

Intolerable Paradigm

Let us hope that the cold hard fact of grid vulnerability is beginning to dawn on us all after recent events. Electricity is vital to our modern lives, but the grid is inevitably vulnerable to disruption, whether it is from a storm or - dare I say it - manmade sabotage. This is the paradox we struggle with: the nature of our historic gird paradigm is that it is BOTH essential and vulnerable. We live every day with the risk of a devastating outage, hoping it doesn't strike us. Until recently, we have simply tolerated this risk, if we deign to acknowledge it at all.

The utility strategy of outage restoration is inherently flawed, because it centers on inevitable loss for energy consumers - loss of life and economic loss - and now that strategy is coming under challenge. Local government and community leaders are declaring the siutation intolerable, but they suggest no solutions, just frustration. Would that the solution could be found in the inventory of options that you cited, Phil: improved vegetation management or better utility preparation offer only minor improvement, shuffling deck chairs as it were; smart grid aids restoration, but still leaves outages; burying grid lines is too expensive, beyond even the cost of smart grid.

A paradigm shift would involve a shift in focus to outage prevention, rather than outage restoration or mitigation. In contrast to the grid, the internet is inherently stable and invulnerable, because it is distributed and highly redundant. A distributed, redundant grid would feature diverse, distributed on site energy resources that co-exist with grid electricity. Back up generators are bandaids that anticipate short term outages, they do not provide for extended outages.

Businesses and residences that have redundant power in the form of on site energy production suffer a grid outage as more of an inconvenience, because they are self-sufficient and count on the grid as only one of several energy supply options. We should re-think our approach to electricity provisioning, to leverage the benefits of distributed, redundant energy resources that are architected in a system that more closely models the internet.

The problem is not management, nor execution, it is grid design. Our grid is vulnerable by design. The solution to utility outages lies in a new paradigm modeled on invulnerability: outage nullification, rather than outage recovery, based on redesign that incorporates distributed elements and redundancy.

John Cooper

President, NextWatt Solutions and Ecomergence

Thank you for saying it

Well John, 

Thanks for your faithful readership and the time you devote to commenting on my blather. 

I thought I'd keep my job another week or two by not indicting centralized power, so thanks for doing that for me. As our readership has a large proportion of folks who run the grid, I thought to focus on pragmatic steps that might improve the situation. But I'm obviously open to the bigger questions and I see -- as you do -- that de-centralized power is more resilient and likely to increase to the point where "the grid" is the back-up only or the conduit for multi-directional energy flows. 

Meanwhile, back on this planet (smile), some folks still gotta keep the lights on. Admittedly, that's a very short-term view. Longer term, utilities might crunch, say, the five-year cost of outages and begin calculating whether it's economical to add distributed resources and encourage homes and businesses to become generators, like many industrial electricity consumers.

I think utilities will come to see community energy and microgrids as valuable assets in their service territories in the mid-term. 

Regards, Phil Carson