The Power Log

In Bahrain, a fire at a substation blacked out the parliament building, where ministers and MPs were going to meet about energy subsidies. Instead, the Minister of State for Electricity and Water Affairs and senior Electricity and Water Authority executives visited the substation to assess the extent of the damage personally.

Several days after an ice storm, the power remained out for thousands in the Toronto area, ruining Christmas plans and resulting in dangerous conditions for those who couldn’t afford or get to warmer shelter. The same was true for more than 100,000 in Michigan, Vermont, and Maine.

In the UK, more than 50,000 were still without power days after major flooding.

A storm with fierce winds interrupted power to 30,000 customers across Northern Ireland. In Mayobridge, it brought a transmission tower down on two homes. One suffered extensive roof damage; the other caught on fire. Residents of both went to the hospital.

Underground power lines aren’t immune to problems. In Londonderry, Northern Ireland, a drainage contractor dug in to a high-voltage line, knocking out power to 3,000.

In Bondi, Australia, two blackout-inducing underground faults occurred within 12 hours of each other.

Driving only a few blocks from his home, a man in Orange County struck a power pole with his Acura. Both that pole and another fell, leaving 350 local residents without electricity.

Another 1,700 residents in Orange County lost power because of a faulty cable, which also caused a brush fire.

The Power Log

It turns out that the outages in Israel that I reported on last week could have been a lot worse. Demand for electricity was at record highs during the snow storm, threatening further problems, but Israel Electric Corporation was able to turn to private power companies for additional capacity.

Foolhardy thieves stole live-wire distribution cable in Eggborough, England, blacking out three homes. Police are looking for suspects in local hospitals.

In Leighton, someone cut an underground cable. Eight-hundred homes lost power, but more importantly, a McDonald’s had to close for 4 hours!

According to Venezuela’s president, it was a single gunshot that downed a 765 kV transmission line and blacked out more than half the country on December 2nd. According to the political opposition, it was mismanagement by the state power company. Here’s the thing, if the Venezuelan power grid isn’t able to withstand a single-contingency, you could say it was both.

Residents of the village of Kamukunji in Kenya are dealing with a blackout that’s lasted 5 days.

A section of Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan suffered yet another extended blackout. This time is was due to a fault on a main feeder. However, the city has also endured load shedding, low voltage, and billing issues.

Damascus, Syria was without power after an explosion along a gas pipeline cut fuel to the city’s main generating station.

In Desert Hot Springs, California, a traffic accident toppled roadside utility poles and cut power to over 500 customers of Southern California Edison.

When the central business district of New Plymouth, New Zealand lost power just before 3:00 AM, the bars were forced to close early and revelers forced in to the dark streets.

An ice storm hit more than 300,000 customers in Michigan and more in Canada. In Guelph, Ontario families dealt with the loss of electricity by opening up Christmas board game presents early.

The Power Log

Major parts of the capital district in Brunei lost power after lightning hit one 11 kV line and then hit a tree that fell on another line. The government responded by telling people not to plant fruit trees.

A storm in Estonia zapped “4,645 electrical substations”, cutting power to approximately 41,000 homes. That’d be 8.9 homes per substation, which doesn’t sound right.

Cold-weather line failures led to electric interruptions for thousands of Hydro-Quebec customers Friday. Temperatures reached -10 °C.

Also on Friday, a rare but powerful snowstorm hit the Middle-East, dumping as much as 1½ feet in desert spots and a light dusting in Cairo, which hadn’t seen the white stuff in over 100 years. Thousands were without power in Israel and the West Bank.

Though not a result of weather, Friday was not a good day in Zambia either. Undiagnosed transmission-line failures cut supplies from the 900 MW Kafue Gorge Power Station and the 655 MW Kariba North Bank Power Station. As a result, most of the country was without electricity while crews worked to identify the problem.

What is an Adequate Level of Reliability?

NERC recently closed comments on its revised definition of an adequate level of reliability. I’m confused, though. Doesn’t section 215 of the Federal Power Act already state that reliability standards are “to provide for reliable operation of the bulk-power system,” where “’reliable operation’ means operating the elements of the bulk-power system… so that instability, uncontrolled separation, or cascading failures of such system will not occur?” It’s certainly what my managers at FERC used to think—that there couldn’t be a transmission event without someone having violated a standard!

In contrast, some Australians are starting to wonder if they’re paying to much for power supply more reliable than necessary. And at home in the United States, one Wall Street Journal columnist suggests that we should do a better job of preparing for blackouts, since we’ll never eliminate them.

And about that adequate level of reliability definition [PDF]… All they’ve managed to come up with is four pages of circular logic—the state the bulk electric system will achieve when standards are followed. Sheesh!

Burying Power Lines

Burying power lines (also called “undergrounding” by engineers) seems like an obvious way to improve reliability. Those of us in the industry are used to seeing interest in this idea surge at the local and state level every winter, with another bump sometimes after hurricane season! An honest study of the costs and benefits, however, reveals a more complex picture, one in which the true value of undergrounding is highly dependent on local conditions.

The assumption by most people is that burying power lines will reduce the amount of time they spend without power. And it’s true that buried lines are less likely to experience outages, though it’s probably not as much an advantage as people think. Underground lines can be affected by flooding, digging, corrosion, and tree roots. When a line is underground, it’s also much more difficult to locate and isolate a problem. Thus when there are problems with buried power lines, the lines tend to remain out-of-service for longer.

Speaking of problems, let’s address maintenance, where again the story is not so simple. Getting to underground lines requires more time, bigger crews, and heavier equipment. On the other hand, compared to overhead lines, vegetation management is a lot simpler and can be performed at significantly reduced cost. Buried lines also avoid clearance issues in commercial areas.

Construction of new underground lines is a lot more expensive than putting up overhead lines for similar reasons to the cost of maintenance. [See the video below for a walk-through of the underground construction process.]

Other significant factors affecting the cost-benefit calculation include aesthetics and safety, both of which typically support undergrounding. Simply put, people don’t like looking at poles and lines in their neighborhoods. Exactly how much of an affect there is would be difficult to say, but the analysis usually assumes that overhead lines negatively impact property values. Safety is a factor mostly because of the poles. Tens of thousands of accidents and a significant percentage of vehicle fatalities involve utility poles.

Yes, it would be nice to have those lines and poles out of the way. The question is, are we willing to pay the price?

5 Tips for Surviving a NERC Audit with Your Sanity Intact

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt—nearly 5 years into mandatory electric reliability standards and there’s still plenty of it to go around. Some people seem to want it that way. But with regard to compliance audits, it’s just not necessary. I’ve been through a few. Follow these five tips and you too can come out the other end of a NERC audit calm, cool, and collected.

1. Ignore the audit

Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is that the audit should not be your focus. Put your attention on reliable operations. Be diligent at maintaining compliance. Keep proper documentation always. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing all along, then the audit becomes no big deal.

2. Remember, it’s just an audit

Uncertainty and doubt breed fear. “What if we can’t find all the maintenance records in time?” “What if the auditor disagrees with our interpretation of that standard?”

Relax! It’s just an audit. The worst thing that can happen is the audit team issues findings of possible violations. You still have time to address those during the enforcement process before they become official alleged violations. After that, you can contest a violation and request a hearing. And you even have an opportunity to appeal a notice of penalty to FERC.

I’m not saying the audit is meaningless, just keep it in perspective. It’s the first step in an enforcement process with multiple opportunities to demonstrate compliance. Documents that take time to locate can be submitted later. Interpretations of standards can be argued at hearing.

3. Complain

Auditors asking for confidential records or showing up at your door (sometimes even with FERC representatives in the group) can be very intimidating. Don’t be afraid, though. Speak up! NERC and regional entity auditors aren’t always right and, in my experience, they usually could do a better job of explaining why they’re asking for something. Now, be careful about refusing to answer a question or provide a requested document. However, don’t hesitate to ask an auditor the basis for his or her request if it seems to imply an assumption or interpretation with which you disagree. At NERC’s recent seminar on audits, Michael Moon, Director of Compliance Operations, said, “This is not a gotcha game. It’s an open book test.” Throughout the seminar, the presenters also encouraged entities to ask questions of their auditors and provide feedback on the audit experience.

4. Shut up

While you should not hesitate to speak up for yourself during an audit, in general, I counsel people to be quiet. With nerves on edge and outsiders questioning one’s work product, there’s a natural tendency to talk—to explain, to justify, to relate interesting stories. This is even more the case when auditors, as they are trained to do, refrain from the personal smalltalk common in business meetings.

Don’t. An audit is not a typical business meeting. You and the auditors are not on the same team. These people are there to determine if you are being compliant with the reliability standards. Answer their questions. But stick to the facts.

5. Do what you say, say what you do

This is both the easiest thing to get wrong and the easiest thing to get right. A number of NERC standards require entities to develop procedures and then follow them. Examples of this include vegetation management plans, maintenance intervals, emergency operations plans, and facility ratings. But besides some general guidelines or limited criteria, the exact procedures or policies are left up to the entities themselves. What could be easier than writing your own standards?

Unfortunately it seems that many entities take this flexibility further than it was intended. They seem to think that because they get to write the procedures themselves, their practices can vary from the procedures if “within reason” or “for the purpose of maintaining reliability.”

Similarly, for many standards a specific procedure document isn’t required, yet an entity may have one for its own reasons. In such a case, there appears even less need to follow the procedure exactly.

Not true! With all due respect to the technical expertise of the engineers and technicians, you need to understand that what we’re dealing with are federal regulations. To be compliant, you must follow the standard exactly as written. If the standard says that you must write a procedure and then implement it, then that is what you must do. Sure, you could have written the procedure differently, but you didn’t. On the other hand, if what you’re doing is better, then change the procedure to match. Even if a procedure document wasn’t required, inconsistencies may lead auditors to question compliance in practice. Don’t let that happen.