Wiring America

A number of years ago, I saw a show on TV all about the work of electric linemen. Unfortunately, I forgot to write down the name of the show and for some time I’ve been trying to track it down without success. The other day, I caught part of Modern Marvels: Wiring America on The History Channel and thought it might be the one I’d been looking for. After watching the whole thing now however, I know it’s not. Still, I think it does a pretty good job of introducing a general audience to the technology of electric transmission. ip address It even mentions my favorite character in the history of electric utilities, Samuel Insull.

Wiring America is as much about telecom as electric transmission, though I found that interesting as well. Coverage of electricity really begins about the 22 minute mark and Insull makes his appearance at 28 minutes.

If anyone has any idea what that show about lineman may have been, please let me know.

Risk Communication and the Fear of Nuclear Power Plants

While the world continues to watch the unfolding tragedy at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, a number of sources seem to be going out of their way to explain to people that nuclear power is not nearly as deadly as other common sources of electric power. If I may paraphrase, that despite some isolated incidents, the risk from nuclear power plants is relatively low.

In an article titled “Why does ‘nuclear’ scare us so much?” on CNN.com, Dr. Drew Pinsky writes:

People generally think about risk from an emotional perspective, rather than from a rational one, says Richard John, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California.

Here’s how you actually calculate risk: Multiply the probability of a consequence by the severity of the consequence. But if you ask people how risky something is, it probably won’t match up with that calculation. They’ll go with their intuition, or gut feeling.

Geekosystem, referring to the above diagram from Next Big Future, explains

But this only serves to illustrate the tendency of people — and the media that feeds that tendency — to focus on the high-impact and low-probability rather than the pervasive and pernicious.

As if the public is wrong to be concerned, and needs to be educated by the statistics.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is common among engineers and experts.

The problem is that it discounts people’s moral values and emotions in valuing risk.

Experts, and apparently certain members of the press, would do well to study the work of Dr. Peter Sandman, who explains that an oft-ignored component of risk is outrage.

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

Hazard is that component of risk most commonly focused on by the experts. Hazard equals the magnitude of the potential problem times the probability of it happening. Outrage, on the other hand, is what the public focuses on. Outrage is a function of 12 components:

  • Voluntary vs. coerced
  • Natural vs. industrial
  • Familiar vs. not familiar
  • Not memorable vs. memorable
  • Not dreaded vs. dreaded
  • Chronic vs. catastrophic
  • Knowable vs. unknowable
  • Individually controlled vs. controlled by others
  • Fair vs. unfair
  • Morally irrelevant vs. morally relevant
  • Trustworthy sources vs. untrustworthy sources
  • Responsive process vs. unresponsive process

The public isn’t wrong in considering these factors important, and rather than trying to correct people, engineers and experts should embrace them as part of strategic communication plans.

FERC’s 3 Lessons for NERC Reliability Standards Compliance

On March 17th, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved an $80,000 settlement between NERC, WECC, and Turlock Irrigation District for the violation of electric reliability standards (order [DOC]). In several previous cases, FERC had requested additional information from NERC. However, this is the first and only case in which FERC chose to proceed with an actual review of a notice of penalty.

What can we learn about the Commission’s views on reliability compliance from a read-through of its decision?

1. Load Shedding and Harm Are Factors in Assessing the Severity of a Violation

There has been some debate as to whether or not loss of load should be considered an aggravating factor in the assessment of a reliability standard violation. The concern is that load shedding is an essential tool for protecting the grid from cascading failures. In fact, load shedding may be required by the reliability standards. System operators shouldn’t be discouraged from acting to contain an emergency because of a concern that their actions will result in larger penalties. Thus, the Commission states:

Moreover, an underlying violation may require an operator to shed load to comply with a Reliability Standard to protect customers from a larger, possibly cascading outage. In such a situation, the operator’s decision to shed load pursuant to the Reliability Standard is not itself a violation and the Commission would not approve or assess a penalty for that decision.

However, the Commission also makes it very clear that a failure to serve customer load is an important measure of the seriousness of a violation.

A loss of load caused by a violation of a Reliability Standard results in harm that is unnecessary and avoidable.

Therefore, when considering an appropriate penalty for a violation, the Commission declares that loss of load should be a factor.

In order to set penalties at an appropriate level, we will consider the quantity of load lost in our analysis of the harm when it occurs, based on the particulars of the load lost resulting from a violation.

2. Self-reporting Should Be Strictly Interpreted

Self-reporting a reliability standard violation is normally grounds for special consideration in the assessment of penalties. What, though, counts as a self-report? Several standards explicitly require companies to notify regional entities about certain events. In such situations, a report is required anyway. In some cases, auditors have allowed companies being audited to file self-reports when violations were discovered (before the audit report was turned in).

In this order, the Commission soundly rejects Turlock’s assertion that it had self-reported an FAC-003 violation. The Commission distinguishes between cooperation and self-reporting, explaining that submitting a report required by a standard does not justify the credit accorded self-reports.

3. Human Error Is No Excuse

The professor of my Human Factors class in college used to say that there is no such thing as human error. Obviously, people make mistakes. What he meant was that you should expect people to make mistakes and design machines and systems to accommodate them.

The Commission makes a similar point in the Turlock order and rejects human error as a mitigating factor in reliability standards violations.

Whether or not these occurrences resulted from human error is not relevant to our consideration of this matter… language translator The possibility of a significant monetary penalty for a violation of a Reliability Standard resulting from human error that adversely affects the BPS provides an incentive for registered entities to create and implement robust training and compliance programs and procedures to make human errors less likely.  Merely because a violation resulted from human error, however, does not by itself warrant reduction of a penalty.

One More Thing…

We can see in this decision hints of the dysfunctional relationship that exists between FERC and NERC. FERC will intervene in the compliance process but finds it difficult to contradict NERC on enforcement.

Regulated entities should understand that FERC is an active participant in the compliance monitoring process. While preparing to respond to the regional entity or NERC during an audit or investigation, companies should remember that there’s also another agency that’s very much involved in the decision-making.

FERC staff work closely with NERC investigators on nearly every case and can have a strong influence on the results. In this order, the Commission approved the settlement but also directed WECC to spot-check Turlock’s performance of several specific standards. During investigations, FERC staff, though they don’t have the authority to order NERC, will similarly raise issues, ask questions, and recommend findings.

However, while FERC is wont to intervene during the investigation stage, when it comes down to the final decision regarding what violations to declare and what penalties to assess, the agency hasn’t demonstrated the willpower to overrule NERC.

This case is the one-and-only review initiated by the Commission for notices of penalty covering 1,872 reliability standard violations. Not a record that suggests a strong position on oversight (unless, that is, you think that NERC and the regional entities did a good job on all 1,800+ violations). Further, NERC filed the notice of penalty on November 13, 2009 and the Commission initiated its review on February 26, 2010, so this decision took more than a year to issue! Finally, the language of the order is pretty clear that the Commission would rather have seen a larger penalty, yet it approved the settlement and justified the action with an acknowledgment that the violation occurred during the early start-up period of mandatory standards.

This article was last edited on June 23, 2011.

Vandalism and Damage to Power Lines

With all the complex issues that go in to maintaining transmission system reliability—voltage support and coordination of protection systems, for example—there are still many simple, low-tech problems that are major headaches for system operations and maintenance. You’re probably aware of the importance of vegetation management. Trees touching power lines have been a leading cause of blackouts. But what are some of the other problems encountered?

Animal incursions are common and can lead to a variety of failures. Birds build nests on insulators. Raccoons dig under fences, climb poles, and walk the wires. seo analysis . Compromised insulation and faults can be the result. A deer on the lines is a little unusual, but you get the idea.

People aren’t innocent either. At current commodity prices, copper theft has become a significant problem for many utilities. I’ve heard more than one manager of a rural utility complain about insulators being used for target practice. And check this video out for the modern version of tilting at windmills:

Even when trying to perform proper maintenance, low-tech problems can surprise you. At one utility where I was performing a condition assessment, they told the story of how a worker driving a mower accidentally clipped a guy-wire. The cable snapped up and wrapped itself around all three phases of the transmission line.

The lesson? Don’t get so caught up with technology that you forget the basics. Also, “stuff happens.”

Public Opinion and Electric Reliability

As energy professionals, we have a particular perspective on electric power transmission issues—by no means homogeneous opinions—but nevertheless, a perspective born of experience, of training, and of familiarity.

Members of the public, however, have their own perspectives. And one that I’ve been following for some time is The Power Line, a blog mostly focused on organizing against the PATH transmission project in West Virginia. Its latest post addresses electric power reliability, arguing against the benefits of transmission projects and for a greater emphasis on distributed generation, smart grid, and conservation. Certainly there are problems with the author’s analysis. For one, the article presents a false dichotomy between transmission and distributed generation. Nevertheless, The Power Line, and this post in particular, offers us insight in to another point–of–view. I recommend you read it.

What other sources for a fresh point–of–view would you recommend to an electric power professional?

Electric Utility Marketing

These days it’s not unusual to see the local utility advertising on TV or to receive a solicitation in the mail from a competing retail supplier of electricity. But do you know…

What was the first utility marketing campaign?

Reddy Kilowatt? Nope.

In the late 1880s, Thomas Edison, with his direct–current central station power system, was losing market share to Westinghouse and his alternating–current system. In order to convince people that AC utility service was a menace to public safety, Edison—who was otherwise a staunch opponent of capital punishment—took an active role in promoting the use of the AC–based electric chair for executing criminals. In 1888 Edison provided funding, laboratory research space, and technical assistance to Harold Brown for his experimental AC electrocution of dogs and horses. Then in July of 1889, Edison testified in a New York court that AC was better suited for executing prisoners because it produced a much more intense shock than did DC. Edison also financed construction of the first electric chair and provided assistance to Harold Brown for the surreptitious procurement of a Westinghouse AC dynamo. The first person to be executed by electricity was one William Kemmler. He died in the electric chair of New York’s Auburn penitentiary on August 6, 1890.

Just one battle in the War of the Currents.

For further information on this fascinating story, I highly recommend the book, Executioner’s Current by Richard Moran. Another more detailed, though I found less entertaining account is Edison & the Electric Chair by Mark Essig. One I haven’t had the opportunity to read is Blood and Volts by Th. Metzger.